A group of Iowa Republicans gathered over the weekend to try to reenergize moderates within the G.O.P.

Former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning, the event’s main organizer, urged the crowd to be "active, assertive, make-a-difference" Republicans. "Our intention is that you will spread your enthusiasm to your friends, your neighbors, your whole community and that you will participate in the Iowa Caucus," Corning said.

Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach, a so-called "moderate" in his Republican Party, lost his bid for re-election in 2006 and now teaches at Harvard. Leach delivered the keynote address at the meeting of his fellow moderates, telling the group that about two percent of Americans — mostly social conservatives — are controlling the Grand Old Party these days. 

"Increasingly, issues are described as moral issues. Some of them are, some of them are not precisely, but the point is if the issue is a moral issue and I hold this position, if you hold this position on the other side — by definition your position is immoral," Leach said. "…It’s pretty hard to get consensus."

Leach suggested the modern-day Republican Party had veered away from its roots as an "individual rights oriented" party, launched in 1853 by those who wanted to outlaw slavery. "I think it’s time to think about the basics and that comes back to heritage and philosophy," Leach said. "…Now this was the progressive party of the 19th century and the early 20th century."

Leach suggested his party was perilously close to embracing a "win-at-all-costs" attitude that may in the end, spell its doom and pave the way for a successful third party. "Should a party be a sanctuary for intolerance?" Leach asked.

Leach suggested moderates in the G.O.P. might have more sway if they decided to re-engage and attend a Caucus January 3rd. "All the indications in this state are that there’s more enthusiasm in one party than the other and that isn’t ours and we’re going to have a smaller turnout than the other party," Leach said. "That actually has some grounds for optimism if commited people want to participate."

The crowd of about 80 people included current and former Republican elected officials as well as a few long-time party activists. Ex-State Senator Jack Rife – formerly from Moscow, Iowa, but now from Des Moines – said he believes moderate Republicans must refocus on the core idea of limited government.

"Moderate Republicans in my opinion, or mainstream people as I like to call them, need to get more involved in the party structure. They’ve kind of (gone) to the sidelines in my opinion and sat on their hands and let the so-called social conservatives take charge and I think (moderates) have got to get back in the game and participate," Rife said. "Hopefully this time around they will."

Former State Representative Janet Metcalf of Windsor Heights was careful to declare the intent of this group of moderates is not to displace social conservatives. "I don’t want to take the party back. I want to strengthen the current party. What I want to do is to have Republicans who feel disenchanted come back into the party," Metcalf said. "I’m not a splinterer. I’m a convenor."

Former New Jersey Governor Christy Todd Whitman, founder of a group called the "Republican Leadership Council" for moderate Republicans, was the meeting’s luncheon speaker.  

"I’ve just met so many Republicans who’ve said, ‘The party’s left me. It now all of a sudden has a litany of litmus tests on these issues and I’m just not there, even if I’m sympathetic,’" Whitman said during an interview with Radio Iowa. "…We’re looked at as being kind of mean-spirited, narrow-minded and that’s not who we are as a party."

According to Whitman, only 10 percent of moderate Republicans turn-out to vote in party primaries or participate in party caucuses. "That’s not good. That’s when the extreme elements of any group control — when those who are more toward the center, more open to compromise, more open to talking to people with whom they disagree on certain issues, when they stay home," Whitman said. "And this (meeting of moderate Iowa Republicans) is to say, ‘Look, there are more of us out there than you think. There are Republicans out here who don’t think compromise is a dirty word." 

AUDIO: Henderson report (mp3 runs 5 min)