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9 GOP hopefuls woo Iowa activists

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at the Republicans' Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at the Republicans’ Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa — Almost all the Republican presidential candidates gravitated toward Iowa on Saturday, wooing voters across the state before giving six-minute pitches to more than 1,000 of the party's hard-core activists.

"Boy, there are a bunch of us," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said of the gathering of nine Republican candidates in Iowa, the state that launches the presidential nominating season.

The candidates, from front-runners to lesser-known hopefuls, ended up at the Iowa Republican Party's annual Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines. Their speeches were compact versions of stump speeches and largely drew polite applause.

Many of the candidates talked tough on the war in Iraq.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Democrats just haven't learned the lessons from previous terrorist attacks.

"I do blame people who don't get it after Sept. 11," he said. During a campaign stop earlier in the day, he focused on how he ran his city after the attacks, and not on his moderate views on key social issues like abortion.

Arizona Sen. John McCain emphasized his continued support for the war in Iraq. He has conceded that he's staking his future on the success of the war, but he said there's too much at risk not to.

The terrorists "are evil and they want to destroy everything that America stands for," McCain said. "We will never surrender and they will surrender."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney agreed that terrorists want to "bring about the collapse of the United States."

But he said he's "optimistic about our future because I have seen the heart of the American people."

Romney used the event in Iowa to showcase his wife, Ann, and son, Josh, drawing an unspoken contrast with rivals who have had far more complicated personal lives.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson said the party must return to its conservative roots, arguing that straying too far from those roots hurt the GOP in the 2006 election.

"We went to Washington to change Washington and Washington changed us," Thompson said. "The Republican Party ... needs to get back to big ideas."

Other candidates in Iowa on Saturday were Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Chicago businessman John Cox, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.

Cox said he wants to bring his business background to the campaign, while Brownback and Gilmore highlighted their sharply conservative views in a pitch to religious conservatives.

Tancredo talked tough on his centerpiece issue of immigration, saying his rivals aren't tough enough.

"Their answer is amnesty," Tancredo said. "It's a slap in the face."

Gilmore took a poke at better known rivals — Giuliani, McCain and Romney — who have been sounding conservative themes.

"Trust me, Rudy McRomney is not a conservative," Gilmore said.

Brownback used props, displaying a massive copy of the nation's tax code and saying "this should be taken behind the barn and killed with a dull ax."

The evening drew more than 1,000 activists who shelled out $75 each to hear the candidates. Party leaders were keeping quiet about just how much money would be raised between the dinner and its accompanying events.

"It will be a record," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Ray Hoffman said.