2016 Prospects Battle for Conservatives' Hearts at CPAC

2016 Prospects Battle for Conservatives' Hearts at CPAC
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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- For three days this week, the center of the action in the burgeoning 2016 Republican presidential race is not anywhere near a dusty Iowa cornfield or a jam-packed New Hampshire diner. Instead, a hotel ballroom at a sprawling waterfront development outside Washington, D.C., is ground zero.

Eight of the 10 most talked about potential contenders have already spoken at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference here. Each of them was vying to leave a lasting impression with the thousands of activists on hand, most of whom will play key roles in determining who becomes the next GOP standard-bearer.  

Among the field of top-tier White House prospects, only Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declined invitations to speak at CPAC. And unlike in some previous midterm years, when one likely aspirant has been the clear CPAC favorite, the 2014 edition of the gathering has reflected the wide-open nature of the rapidly approaching Republican presidential campaign.

The young, libertarian-leaning set that is typically predominant at CPAC rewarded Rand Paul with perhaps the loudest ovation of the conference when the Kentucky senator spoke to a standing-room-only crowd Friday afternoon.

In a prelude to the theme his likely presidential campaign appears set to embrace, Paul called for a “national revival of liberty,” asking the crowd, “Will we be firm in our convictions or will we cower defeated and meekly dilute our message?”

Paul quoted luminaries ranging from John Adams to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, reaching the emotional high mark of his address in lambasting the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.

“As our voices rise in protest, the NSA monitors our every phone call,” he said. “If you have a cellphone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damned business!”

Though the warm greeting given Paul’s remarks was expected, the rousing reception that Texas Gov. Rick Perry received during his Friday morning speech was a surprise.

After his once promising 2012 White House bid fizzled out with an “oops” and a whimper, Perry’s humdrum appearance at last year’s CPAC did little to inspire confidence that his flirtations with a second presidential run would amount to much. But this year, Perry was in top form as he refocused his long-espoused message of decreasing the role of the federal government and giving more power to the states.  

In opening Friday’s slate of events with a crisp and confident speech, the nation’s longest-serving governor demonstrated that his fashionable glasses aren’t the only reason national pundits are taking him seriously again. “We don’t have to accept recent history, we just need to change the presidency,” Perry said.

Another potential White House contender who received a warmer reception than anticipated was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie’s CPAC appearance Thursday was watched particularly closely, not only due to his current problems back home with the Bridgegate scandal, but also because of his well-established problems with the conservative rank-and-file in recent years. (Christie was not even invited to speak at last year’s CPAC.)

In a dramatic departure from the carefully calibrated tone he took while campaigning for re-election last fall, Christie’s address here was a heaping serving of red meat for the conservative faithful, which the crowd chewed on with gusto. 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz perhaps didn’t have to work as intently as Christie to get the partisan crowd on his side. The firebrand freshman senator used his speech to emphasize his oft-repeated mantra that Republicans should not compromise on matters of principle, calling for “every single word” of the Affordable Care Act to be repealed.

In an interview with RCP, Col. Rob Maness -- a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Louisiana -- suggested that anyone who discounts Cruz’s national appeal among conservatives (who dominate the GOP nomination process) is underestimating him.

“The folks that are in this Beltway need to go out to Texas and see exactly how popular he’s gotten,” Maness said. “That’s what I would recommend.”

Like Cruz, Louisiana Sen. Bobby Jindal was eager to leave an impression by sounding a defiant note on a range of issues near and dear to conservatives. And he delivered a tongue-in-cheek apology to Jimmy Carter, noting that it was no longer fair to call Carter the nation’s worst president in light of President Obama’s tenure.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, working to recover from the steep drop in his standing among conservatives after his support for immigration reform, focused much of his speech on foreign policy. Referencing the events that led to the current crisis in Ukraine, Rubio called on fellow Republicans to reject the noninterventionist streak that has been ascendant within the party in recent years and to embrace a more robust projection of U.S. power abroad.

“There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism,” Rubio said.

In former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, this year’s CPAC featured the last two winners of the Iowa Republican caucuses, both of whom are weighing a second presidential run.

Harking back to his past life as a Baptist preacher, Huckabee lamented a nation that he suggested is losing its moral compass. “If this nation forgets its God, then our God will have every right to forget us,” he told the crowd.

Asked after his speech what factors would go into his decision regarding a run in 2016, Huckabee told RCP, “There are many factors: family, financial support. That kind of thing will be a real big part of it.”

As he has done since his surprising runner-up finish for the 2012 nomination, Santorum indicated that he would have been a superior general election candidate to Mitt Romney. “We saw this in Ohio -- hundreds of thousands of people were staying home,” he said. “They couldn’t vote for us because they didn’t think we cared.”

And in a clear reference to the bright future in presidential politics he envisions for himself, Santorum noted that he won more states in 2012 than any second-place finisher for the GOP nomination since Ronald Reagan in 1976.

Another speaker who suggested that a second act on the national stage may be in store for himself was Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee downplayed divisions within the conservative movement and presented himself as a GOP unifier.

"The way the left tells it, the Republican Party's in this big, massive civil war -- it's Tea Party versus establishment versus libertarians versus social conservatives,” Ryan said. “There's in-fighting, conflict. … Look, I'm Irish. That's my idea of a family reunion."

To close the conference on Saturday, CPAC participants will cast their ballots in a presidential straw poll -- an annual beauty contest that is always closely watched but only occasionally predictive of future results.

Since the tradition began in 1976, the straw poll has been conducted four times in midterm election years when an incumbent Republican president was not seeking re-election. The winners of those straw polls were Jack Kemp in 1986, Steve Forbes in 1998, George Allen in 2006 and Ron Paul in 2010.

None of them became serious threats to win the GOP presidential nomination two years after their CPAC triumphs, and Allen did not even run.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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