DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Five Republican presidential hopefuls auditioned for Iowa's party insiders at a fund-raising dinner on Friday, sparing each other from criticism but dishing up plenty of red-meat attacks on Washington and President Barack Obama.
Two months before Iowa kicks off the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, the two candidates who led a recent state poll -- Herman Cain and Mitt Romney -- skipped the chance to address about 1,000 party activists.
The contenders who did appear -- Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann -- promised a quick end to Washington's big-spending, big-government ways if they occupied the White House.
"Some want to reform Washington with a pair of tweezers. I'm for bringing a wrecking ball to Washington," said Perry, the Texas governor, joking the candidates were on "Operation Occupy the White House."
"What's lacking in Washington D.C. isn't ideas, what's lacking up there is courage," he said.
Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, likened the federal government and its rate of spending to a canoe heading over Niagara Falls.
"What we need in our nominee for the Republican Party is someone who will stand up and say 'stop, no more,'" she said.
The five candidates are battling along with Cain for the allegiance of Iowa's big bloc of social conservatives, hoping a win here will position them as the conservative alternative to Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Cain's table in the lobby of the dinner hall stayed busy, and his supporters said they were not deterred by his absence or by the sexual harassment allegations from the 1990s lodged against him. Cain has denied the charges.
"If there was any substance to these charges, where were they when he was polling at 5 percent?" asked Bonita Davis, a Cain supporter who is technical writer from Des Moines.
'NOT JUST TAXES AND SPENDING'
Santorum, a former U.S. senator, reminded the crowd he just completed visits to each of Iowa's 99 counties -- the first Republican candidate in this cycle to manage that. He emphasized his commitment to a conservative social agenda and promised to lead with a focus on faith and family.
"America is not just about taxes and spending, it's not just about the size of government," he said. "We can't have a strong economy without strong values."
Paul, a libertarian U.S. representative from Texas, stressed his commitment to bringing U.S. troops back from Afghanistan and other war zones.
"We don't need more weapons, we need a wiser foreign policy," Paul said. "We need to mind our own business, end these wars and start bringing our troops home."
Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, praised his competitors at the dinner one by one, calling their proposals on the economy, taxes and repealing healthcare "powerful ideas."
"There has been a real effort to think through on the Republican side what we need to do to be competitive and to be prosperous," he said.
He also repeated his pledge to challenge Obama to a series of open-ended, unmoderated debates similar to the legendary Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas Senate debates in 1858.
He said if Obama did not accept, he would follow the president around on the campaign trail "and wherever the president appears I will appear four hours later."
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham)
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