DES MOINES, Iowa — A handful of high-profile Republicans who may be eyeing the White House told hundreds of conservative activists Saturday that most Americans agree with their values, and insisted that opposition to the president's health care overhaul could help the GOP make historic gains in 2012.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, got the noisiest reception when she told about 500 people gathered in Des Moines that voters are ready to overturn the federal health care law and oust President Barack Obama during next year's election.
"The ultimate arrogance, in my opinion, is Obamacare," the Minnesota congresswoman said. "That's why I am so absolutely confident in 2012. Americans have made the decision that we're going to take our country back."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain also spoke during the event organized by Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose state is home to the nation's first presidential caucuses. The congressman said the gathering would help conservatives shape the debate as Republicans begin looking for a candidate to run against Obama.
"We need to take this nation to the next level of its destiny," King told the crowd. "You can shape that destiny."
Iowa's caucuses traditionally launch the presidential nominating season, and the sharply conservative rhetoric Saturday reflects an Iowa Republican Party that has drifted to the right. Polling last year showed more than 60 percent of GOP caucusgoers identified themselves as evangelicals.
Gingrich and Barbour insisted that most Americans agree with their conservative values. Gingrich said the 2012 election would provide a chance to end the "domination of the left and move this country back to the center-right."
Barbour dismissed suggestions that Obama has moved to the center in preparation for next year's election. He said the president's proposed budget "calls for spending to go up, it calls for the deficit to go up."
The governor also said Republicans can win next year if their candidates stay focused on key issues — health care and balancing the federal budget — without getting distracted by arguments about personality.
"What is important to us is to have a new president," Barbour said. "This election needs to be about policy."
That theme appeared to be in play Saturday. The speakers focused on criticizing Obama and Democrats, and made little effort to find differences with each other, though Gingrich did note that he "helped balance a budget for four straight years" while House speaker.
Gingrich briefly drifted from the event's mostly domestic theme to attack Obama's handling of the airstrikes in Libya. He ridiculed Obama for consulting the Arab League and the United Nations, but not Congress, before getting involved. Gingrich said he wouldn't have approved the airstrikes, but "once you get involved, you put on the pressure and you win quickly."
Cain, who didn't speak about the federal health care law, said the conservative movement is gaining strength and will help Republicans take back the government. He said the United States has "an entitlement spending crisis" that must be reformed in order to solve the nation's financial woes.
"We don't like the radical socialist agenda that is being shoved down our throats," said Cain, who lives in suburban Atlanta.
Bachmann, meanwhile, said the effort to repeal the health care reform law has created a strong tide of support for Republicans positioning themselves for next year's election.
"It's never gone below a majority of Americans who want to see Obamacare repealed," Bachmann said. "This is, I believe, the greatest power grab that I have ever seen."
The stakes in next year's election are enormous, she added.
"What we are going to determine together, here in Iowa, is … whether we will pass the American dream on to the next generation," Bachmann said.