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Conservatives, GOP Candidates Gear Up for CPAC

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands with the crowd after his speech at last year's CPAC Conference. He will participate again this year in the event, held by the American Conservative Union in Washington, D.C.

Four years ago this week, Mitt Romney surprised attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference by dropping out of the presidential race.

As the American Conservative Union’s gathering of grass-roots activists kicks off again today in Washington, D.C., the former Massachusetts governor finds himself the uneasy frontrunner in a Republican nomination fight that remains hotly contested. He is one of three GOP contenders speaking at the event on Friday, and ACU Chairman Al Cardenas said the state of the race is bringing a welcome buzz to the three-day event.

“For a couple of decades we really haven’t had a very contested, competitive primary heading into CPAC,” Cardenas said in an interview with Roll Call. “For the candidates, it will be the ultimate focus group, because they’ll be on the same day, on the same stage, in front of the same group of people. And we’ll see what kind of reaction they get.”

Romney is coming off big wins in both Florida and Nevada, though he came up short in three states that made their choices Tuesday. The conservative alternative to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008, Romney is now struggling to coalesce support across the party spectrum and put away the nomination.

“For the governor, CPAC is another opportunity to bring a message about what can unify conservatives in our effort to defeat President [Barack] Obama in November,” Romney adviser Kevin
Madden said.

As for the other two candidates appearing at CPAC, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) won Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota this week, breathing life into his campaign. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has struggled to gain traction since winning South Carolina but has promised to take the race to the national convention in August. Neither campaign responded to a request for comment.

Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), a CPAC favorite and the only presidential candidate still running who has not yet won a state, is skipping the event to campaign in Maine. His son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), will speak in his place.

The 2008 CPAC opened just two days after Super Tuesday, from which Romney emerged weakened following big wins by McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Twenty-nine states had already voted by that time, while only eight have completed voting so far in 2012. McCain, now a Romney surrogate, did not know in advance that Romney was dropping out.

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