A year before Iowa voters decide who they like most for president, a lineup of likely conservative candidates will present themselves in Des Moines to activists from across the state and media from around the country.

Organizers bill the sold-out Iowa Freedom Summit as devoted to “how we can get America back on track by focusing on our core conservative principles of pro-growth economics, social conservatism and a strong national defense.”

The main sponsors of the summit are the conservative group Citizens United and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of the state’s most popular conservative lawmakers.

Although neither Mitt Romney nor Jeb Bush was expected to show on Saturday, other 2016 hopefuls on the agenda include three current Republican office holders —   New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — and one who left office only Tuesday: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

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Also scheduled to test out presidential themes are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, celebrated Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson and entrepreneur and former business executive Carly Fiorina of Virginia — the only woman in the group of possible candidates.

Reliable crowd favorites Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, John Bolton and Donald Trump were slated to be on hand.

One of the lead-off morning speakers will be Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, a son of South Carolina who left the U.S. Senate in 2012 to take the helm of one of Washington’s leading policy research organizations.

“At Heritage, we concentrate on conservative policy solutions. When candidates talk in generalities, we want to talk in more specifics, ” DeMint told The Daily Signal, adding: “We promote the right ideas around the country and invite Americans, including the candidates, to embrace them.”

DeMint, who was urged to run for president before he took over the think tank, agreed to sit down with The Daily Signal — Heritage’s multimedia news organization — to talk about why it’s a good idea for him to be part of this and similar events. Here’s what he had to say.

The Daily Signal: Why speak at the Iowa Freedom Summit? What do you hope to accomplish there?

Jim DeMint: Well, at The Heritage Foundation one of our goals for the next two years is to shape the national policy debate, to focus on the right ideas and policies. And try to get Americans to focus first on the right policies before they get engaged in the personalities.

The summit is a great opportunity to shape the debate, to cast the conservative vision, to talk about how our ideas create opportunities for all and favoritism to none — and really what that means in terms of policy.

So it’s an opportunity for us to begin a process that we’re going to continue throughout the presidential election season and beyond.

Q: What are your thoughts on the early makeup of the 2016 race for president?

A:  This is one of the best fields I’ve ever seen, personally. In some ways that’s good, in some ways that’s bad. It makes it much more complicated for people to sort through all the personalities when many of them are saying a lot of the same things.

At Heritage, we concentrate on conservative policy solutions. When candidates talk in generalities, we want to talk in more specifics.  Just as we did with Heritage Action for America’s policy summit to bring in members of Congress to talk about specific policy ideas.

So we’re going to challenge voters to sort out which candidates are really substantive, which ones are committed to the right ideas. Hopefully, by doing that, we can shape a more positive debate.

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Q: What role do you hope for Heritage to play in equipping and preparing candidates?

A: We have already worked with a lot of them over the years, and we’ve done some briefings. As part of our mission as an educational think tank we provide research and conservative policy solutions that are sought by elected officials and candidates, including governors who want to know more about foreign policy.

We’ll continue to work with them. A lot of them want to speak at our events, and we’ve had a number over the last year. So we’re getting to know them.

And we want every one of them to know that we are the source of ideas they need in what we consider the three areas that are most important to a strong America: a strong society, a strong economy and a strong defense.

Q: What can Americans do to convince candidates to carry out a substantive debate on pressing issues?

A: Our hope is that they, particularly conservatives, won’t rush in to endorse different personalities, that they’ll listen for a number of months and weigh the pros and cons of the policy positions of the different candidates.

In the past couple of decades it seems that in every presidential election there have been a number of conservatives who divide the vote in the primaries, and someone who is not as conservative has won those primaries.

We need to do better. At Heritage, we promote the right ideas around the country and invite Americans, including the candidates, to embrace them.

Q: So is it important, do you think, for typical Americans to tune in right now to the race?

A: I know [laughs], being in the private sector most of my life, that people have jobs and children and it’s very difficult to tune in. And the media is not going to cover a lot of this.

We want to engage more Americans, to get them involved in the process earlier. I think that will tend to drive which candidates actually stay in the race, if the public gets involved and the polls begin to indicate which way they’re going.

So yes, I would challenge all Americans to begin that process of vigilance where they’re helping to determine the outcome of the next election by becoming more and more informed.

Q: You’ve seen issues and politicians come and go. Why should Americans be hopeful that our leaders will make progress on some of these big challenges you’re talking about?

A: Americans should be very hopeful, because over the last six years of this president we’ve experienced some of the worst policies in my lifetime. Yet America still seems to be digging out from under the recession, getting back to work. We’re a very resilient country. Our free market system, our civil society outside of government, is working despite the federal government.

I think what we saw in the last election [resulted in] probably the most conservative class of House and Senate members that I’ve seen, despite what some of the pundits say. I believe the House and the Senate are stocked with good people.

If we elect a president who is actually inspiring about the ideas that he or she talks about, I believe that Congress will work with that president in very positive ways. So I think we’re just a very short distance from real success in America.

One of the areas we see is energy, for instance, and our economy. If the federal government would just let prosperity happen. The federal government controls a third of the land mass in America, and they won’t let [conventional fuel] development happen.

But in the state and private lands where it has been developed, we’ve seen America significantly reduce its dependence on foreign oil and have the capacity to supply our allies with energy. What a turn that is for us, economically.

I think we’ve got a bright and prosperous future. It’s all dependent on whether or not people see what really works. Our job as conservatives is to conserve those things that work. And we just have to convince Americans to look past all of the rhetoric and nice-sounding talk and look at what really will make their life better.

That’s what we want to do at Heritage. I’m excited.

A: Anything else you want to say?

Q: I appreciate everyone who is … starting to get engaged in the process [of electing a new president].  I think we can make it fun, as a nation, this crowded field of young and old, experience and inexperience, senators, governors, folks who’ve been in medicine.

We hope to keep it from becoming negative by focusing on ideas and challenging the public. I don’t think we should look at this as something we’re dreading, but something that should be exciting for the nation.