On the eve of Kansas’ Republican presidential caucus, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum came to Wichita to whip up support, speaking at separate rallies 12 miles apart on Friday.
At a pre-caucus rally at Century II that turned contentious when Santorum supporter Todd Tiahrt spoke, Paul drew standing ovations from a crowd of about 1,500 as he talked about a government living beyond its means and the importance to respect life. All four candidates were invited to the rally organized by the local tea party, but Paul was the only one to attend.
Across town, Santorum spoke before an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 at Col. James Jabara Airport, telling Kansans to send a clear message that they want less government, not more.
Registered Republicans can turn their passion into tangible support Saturday by voting in GOP caucus sites across the state. In Sedgwick County, that means going to Century II’s Convention Hall, where doors will open at 8 a.m. The caucus starts at 10 a.m. Voting will start after speeches by the candidates’ representatives.
No presidential candidates will appear at south-central Kansas caucuses. Karen Santorum is scheduled to speak on behalf of her husband at the Sedgwick County caucus site.
Paul and Santorum, along with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, are vying for Kansas’ 40 delegates. Romney and Gingrich bypassed the state on Friday to campaign in Southern states that vote Tuesday.
Passionate about Paul
Paul supporters dominated the turnout at the rally downtown. Applause frequently interrupted the Texas congressman’s speech, which ranged from economics to concerns over involvement in war without Congress declaring war to social issues.
“Life came from our creator, not from our government,” Paul said.
On spending, Paul said, “A nation that lives beyond its means is forced to live below its means.”
Tim Nordell, a rancher from Sedan, said he came to back Paul.
“He seems to be the only one who is concerned about states’ rights and personal liberties,” Nordell said. “He’ll cut the budget, while the others just want to cut increases in spending.”
Jules Fuquay, a student at Southwestern College in Winfield, said she started following Paul five or six years ago.
“I thought he was smart,” she said. “He knows how to be the boss man.”
At times, the rally took on a festive atmosphere with the female trio Sirens of South Central singing selections from patriotic songs to Pink Floyd tunes. But it was mostly about Paul.
Paul supporters waved their signs and chanted his name. So you can imagine what happened when Tiahrt, the former congressman from Goddard, spoke on behalf of Santorum, who is favored to win in Kansas.
Plenty of boos and chants of “Ron Paul, Ron Paul.”
“The reason I support Rick Santorum,” Tiahrt began to boos. Holding up his hand, he said, “Hear me out.”
He went on to say that Santorum stood a better chance than Paul of defeating President Obama in November. More boos.
At that point, Craig Gabel, president of Kansans for Liberty, sponsor of the rally, stepped up to the mike and told the crowd, “Let’s not be rude to speakers.”
Still, there were chants of “Ron Paul, Ron Paul” as Tiahrt left the stage.
Paul seems to “bring out a lot of serious passion,” said Jeff Reel, a Columbia, Mo., resident who was at the rally selling campaign memorabilia for all of the candidates. Paul’s items are usually his hottest sellers, he said.
At the airport, Santorum spoke about 40 minutes.
“Kansas needs to speak loudly tomorrow,” the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania told the crowd.
Santorum said the country needs less interference from its leaders, fewer taxes and looser regulations.
“We need to have someone take the pedal off bigger government,” Santorum said.
He spoke against the Affordable Healthcare Act, calling it “Obamacare,” and said it’s crucial for Americans to hang on to their liberties.
“This is a game-changer,” he said.
He said he knows his campaign has a long way to go, but he promised, “We’re not going anywhere but up and up and up.”
Clearwater resident Sheri Barnett liked what she heard.
She said she is a conservative who has supported Santorum since day one.
She said she fears Americans are losing their rights and believes Santorum when he says he wants limited government.
Barnett will support Santorum at her first caucus. She said she knows there is concern out there that Santorum can’t beat President Obama, but she said she won’t settle for a “middle-of-the-road” candidate.
The last election, she said, “taught me not to be afraid. We either win on our conviction or we lose.”
The rally was a first for Wichitan Deborah Miller.
“I’m for Rick because he is pro-life,” she said, standing in a makeshift front row to see Santorum when he arrived. “I believe he has backbone and strength. It’s time to replace the current administration we have now.”
Chandra Murray of Pratt brought a group of girls, including two of her own, ranging from age 9 to 14.
“He stands for the constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights,” Murray said. “That’s important for these kids’ future.”
A giant flag hung behind the stage with a smaller “Made in America” sign in front of it.
Meanwhile, Santorum campaign officials said they were not sending out late-night and early-morning text messages calling for support.
A couple of people called The Wichita Eagle complaining about receiving pro-Santorum text messages around 2 a.m.
Brandon Rudkin, Santorum’s Kansas campaign headquarters director, said the campaign had not sent those messages.
GOP vs. tea party?
Back downtown, Gabel indicated he thought the Sedgwick County Republican Party undercut the rally at Century II by bringing in Santorum at a different location.
“It’s awfully odd that he’s going to be in town but he’s at an event being held against us,” Gabel said.
He said he offered to allow the county’s GOP to give away tickets to the rally on the radio, but was turned down by Bob Dool, the county’s Republican Party chairman.
“He told me, ‘Craig, you have your event and we have our event,’ ” Gabel said. “I’m slightly disappointed we don’t have more candidates here. I wish we had 6,000 people, but we have a nice crowd.”
Dool, contacted later, said Gabel’s account of the conversation was correct. As for why more candidates didn’t come to the Kansans for Liberty rally, Dool said, “I have no comment on what Craig and his organization does. That was organized with no connection to the Sedgwick County Republican Party.”
Meanwhile, at the downtown rally, some attendees said they are still trying to decide who to support.
K.D. Davis of Wichita said, “My gut instinct tells me (to support Newt) Gingrich. He embraces the Reagan principles. But I like Ron Paul, too. I’ll support whoever is chosen. I’m proud to be here rubbing shoulders with so many people who love their country.”
Pam Unruh of Towanda wore Romney’s last name hand-printed on her straw hat’s band. She said she settled on Romney after her early top choices – Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain – dropped out of the race.
“I like his (Romney’s) wife,” she said. “I think he’s more conservative than they give him credit for. I’ve been a conservative since the first year I could vote.”
Matt Mercer and his wife, Janelle, came from Dodge City to attend the rally. Matt backs Paul.
“The biggest problem facing this country is our national debt,” he said. “If we don’t fix that, all the rest doesn’t matter. For me, Paul is the only one giving that message.”
Matt, who owns a safety and security consulting company, said, “If I ran my business the way the federal government does, I’d be out of business.”
A Libertarian, he said he registered as a Republican just so he could vote for Paul in the caucus.
“I’ll go back and re-register as a Libertarian,” he said.
And Janelle’s choice of candidates?
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” she said.