Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) - Just hours before six presidential candidates were set to meet at a debate at Drake University, three of those candidates addressed a small crowd of roughly 50 Iowans at a candidates forum hosted by Veterans for a Strong America.
Speaking mostly about veterans' issues and national security, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry took turns professing their support for the armed services and criticizing President Barack Obama for his handling of international relations.
Michele Bachmann had also committed to attend the forum, but the group's founder Joel Arends told CNN that her campaign telephoned just 20 minutes before the event was supposed to begin to inform him that she wouldn't be coming. The congresswoman's husband Marcus Bachmann spoke in her stead. A spokeswoman for the campaign said that Bachmann had bowed out so she could continue preparing for the debate.
Arends opened up the forum by saying that his group was created to familiarize veterans across the country with those running to be their president, not to advocate for any one candidate's election. With that goal in mind, Arends introduced Gingrich, who quickly outlined what he views as the most important national security problems facing the country today, making a point to exclude any threat from China's rise.
"There is no Chinese problem if we do the right things in America," Gingrich said. "If we have the right economy to create manufacturing, if we have the right use of science and technology, if we reform our education system, the fact is the Chinese couldn't catch us in 100 years if we truly liberated 300 million people to maximize their capabilities."
Gingrich also criticized Obama's handling of the Arab Spring, demonstrating the president's failing through the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
"When the number of Christians in Iraq dropped from 1.2 million, when Americans arrived to about 500,000 today because 700,000 have fled, I don't regard that as a victory for the modern world," Gingrich said. "When you watch Coptic Christian churches, which go back 2,000 years, being burned in Egypt, I don't think that's an Arab spring. I think it may become an Arab hurricane."
The next candidate to speak was Santorum, who levied some of the most pointed attacks on the president, implying that Obama may be intentionally weakening America.
"The radical Islamists are as strong now as they have been maybe since the events of 9/11 because this president has betrayed Israel and his allies consistently and has aligned himself with those who seek to do us harm," Santorum said. "I wish it was naïve, but I'm not sure it is."
The only candidate to take questions from the audience, Santorum quickly dismissed the first questioner's suggestion that some retired military officers believe that armed forces should be better prepared for the effects of climate change.
"I think the speculative effects of climate change on the military are so speculative and so long term that for the United States military to spend any time on such a thing is not a wise allocation of resources on our part," Santorum said. When asked if he viewed climate change as a problem for the military he said, "I do not."
Perry – the last candidate to speak – was introduced by the debut of his campaign's latest video. Shot in black and white, the video featured a series of veterans who have endorsed the Texas governor relaying stories from the battle field and explaining why Perry was their choice to be the next president.
After retelling some of the stories featured in the video and urging the veterans present to consider joining his campaign's team, Perry went on to criticize Obama for seeking the approval of the UN before intervening overseas and for how one of his advisers has characterized his foreign policy strategy.
"When it comes to act we will not wait for the approval of some multilateral debating society, we will act swiftly and we will act decisively," Perry said.
"We won't wage war with one hand tied behind our back when I'm president of the United States," Perry added. "Some have called that 'leading from behind,' with this president I call it leading from the back nine."
The largest applause line of the afternoon came when Perry waded into a local issue. A small firestorm sparked at Iowa State University after a lecturer in the English department wrote a letter in the school's newspaper criticizing college Republicans for collecting sundry items to send to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The professor argued that soldiers are paid well-enough to buy goods for themselves, and the group's charity should instead be focused on people who "really need them."
"I'm really proud of the college Republicans at Iowa State University who filled boxes and worked through their time off from school to give gifts to be delivered to our fighting men and women in Afghanistan," Perry said to applause. "And I want the English professor who attacked them to know that while it may be your first amendment right to spout nonsense, you wouldn't be able to do it if it wasn't for those fighting men and women who are serving around the world today."