DES MOINES, Iowa -- Conservatives signaled a heated and passionate battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination Saturday, cheering criticism of absent establishment figures Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney while applauding vows to put a crackdown on illegal immigration at the top of the 2016 agenda.
While Bush and Romney stayed away, a parade of potential candidates courted 1,000 conservative activists at a daylong event, an audience in no mood to hear of compromise with Democrats.
Nor were they eager to hear more about the party's powerful center-right figures, Bush and Romney. Neither attended the Iowa Freedom Summit at a Des Moines theater. That was probably a good idea, because when Donald Trump blasted them, the crowd cheered and whistled.
"It can't be Mitt because Mitt ran and failed," Trump said of the Republicans' 2012 presidential nominee. And, he said, "the last thing we need is another Bush."
Anger over President Barack Obama's November decision to ease deportations for undocumented immigrants sizzled throughout the day. When former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was giving his get-tough talk, protesters in the balcony began shouting and holding up signs saying "Deportable."
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a co-host of the Saturday session, earlier in the week ridiculed an Obama guest at the State of the Union as "deportable." Ana Zamora, a student from Dallas who sat with Michelle Obama that night, is among those who received legal status because of Obama's 2012 executive action.
The protesters roused the crowd, which to that point had given Perry only a polite response. Suddenly they erupted with loud applause. Perry explained how he deployed National Guard troops to protect the border this summer after an influx of children. "If Washington refuses to secure the border," he said, "Texas will."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also was interrupted by a protester. "Don't they know I'm from New Jersey?" he asked as security officials led the man out.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, got the biggest cheers from the crowd when he took on two conservative favorites, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and securing the border.
"There are 110,000 employees at the IRS," he said, his voice rising. "We need to padlock that building and put every one of those 110,000 on our southern border," Anyone trying to come across would see all those IRS agents and immediately turn back, Cruz said.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whose backers have chairmen in all 99 Iowa counties, was more measured. He stayed away from criticizing potential rivals, and got loud applause as he discussed his background, his plea for more self-reliance and his faith.
"That's the wonderful thing about God. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to talk to him. You just have to have faith," Carson said.
Carson offered a two-step plan: Don't offer jobs to undocumented immigrants unless Americans won't take the jobs. And to get a guest worker permit, a prospective employee would have to apply for it from outside of this country.
"You shouldn't get an advantage for breaking the law," he said.
Rick Santorum argued for tougher immigration laws as an important way to support and protect American workers. "We need to stand for an immigration policy that puts Amercians first and American workers first," the 2012 Iowa caucus winner said. "That isn't anti-immigrant."
Other potential candidates got polite receptions as they emphasized other issues.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker spent most of his talk touting his state's achievements, including hiring teachers on merit, and tax cuts. Walker has won statewide elections in three of the p'ast four years, including a recall.
Christie, not a favorite of this crowd, used his 20 minutes to talk about how New Jersey values were the same as those of Iowa's. "I am living proof" that one can run as an abortion opponent in a Democratic-dominated state and win, he said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pledged to shrink the federal government. "Washington, D.C., has become the roach motel. People come in, they never go out," he said. One solution would be term limits for the legislative branch, he said.
Former business executive Carly Fiorina took aim at Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination.
"Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something," Fiorina said.
Bush, the former Florida governor, signaled this week he would compete in Iowa if he ran. He spoke for about 20 minutes by phone with Iowa Republican Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. Kaufmann said they discussed mechanics, not issues, as Bush asked specifics about different cities and venues.
Bush talked broadly about his views Friday at a National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in San Francisco. "Hope and a positive agenda wins out over anger and reaction every day of the week," he said.
He also positioned himself away from many of the Iowa activists who gathered Saturday on immigration. Bush urged first securing the borders, and then offering a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, saying they should pay a fine, lean to speak English and then "get in the back of the line" to win legal status.