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Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum talks with Kim Schmitt, left, at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, Monday, March 7, 2011, at the Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa.

WAUKEE, Iowa — Several Republicans mulling 2012 presidential bids descended on Iowa Monday to test their strength among social conservatives who hold the key to the state's lead-off caucuses.

Whether any of them manages to stand out from the crowd hints at how a scattered and as-yet undeclared GOP field will eventually shake out. Five of the potential candidates took the stage for a forum at a church in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee, hoping to set themselves apart.

"I do believe we have an extraordinarily fundamental choice to make in this election," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of those who participated. "We are at a crossroads that we cannot hide from: What kind of country do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?"

The forum hosted by The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition also included former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer.

They made their case to hundreds of activists starting to look at potential contenders for the 2012 election cycle. All five argued that they can be best trusted to follow the conservative path, and they went out of their way to talk about religion in a state where social and religious conservatives play a heavy role in GOP politics.

"The American dream is under attack, that's the bad news," Cain said. "The good news is we are on the attack. We have got to lead this nation from an entitlement society to an empowerment society. We must defend those principles this nation was founded on."

Cain said he had no plans to run for president, but "was compelled" because the nation was on the wrong track.

Meanwhile, Gingrich said he's "in the process of exploring" a presidential bid. "We're all going to have to be on the same team after this is over," he said.

Steve Scheffler, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the event was just the beginning of the 2012 caucus campaign and few would be making commitments on candidates quickly.

"No one is going to make up their mind after tonight," Scheffler said. "Most of them are coming from pretty similar positions."

Activists likely are looking for a candidate who they think will actually carry out campaign promises after elected, he said.

"We're looking for somebody with some backbone, who has a little iron in his spine," Scheffler said.

Earlier Monday, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who sought the GOP nomination in 2008, spoke at three events scattered throughout Iowa and sponsored by The Family Leader.

"The role of government is to protect liberty," Paul said. "Put the responsibility at the local level, not in the king in Washington who has gone astray."

The Family Leader is a high-profile social conservative group that is inviting potential Republican presidential candidates to address family issues. In coming weeks, the group will host Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman and former Sen. Rick Santorum in coming weeks.

"We have accepted the reality that government will provide for us," Paul said. "Today we are at a point where the family has been under pressure."

Also Monday, a top aide to billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump landed in Iowa for a series of meetings, as Trump mulls a presidential bid. Trump aide Michael Cohen met with key Republicans like state chairman Matt Strawn and his business partner Jeff Lamberti. Cohen also met with high-profile GOP lawyer Doug Gross.

Trump last week said he was "very seriously" considering a run for president and was dispatching key aides to view the landscape in Iowa, where precinct caucuses traditionally launch the presidential nominating season.

Cohen said his testing of the waters was "really fantastic" after his meeting with key activists.

"People in Iowa really want to see Donald Trump run for president," he said. "When the time comes to caucus, my hope is Mr. Trump will have a substantial head start."