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2012 Starts at CPAC

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (above), considered the 2012 Republican presidential frontrunner, attacked President Barack Obama in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Republicans hoping for the chance to take on President Barack Obama were given 15 minutes on the national stage this week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. It served as a coming-out party for some and reinforced the frontrunner status of others.

“CPAC is about more than just the folks in the ballroom,” Republican consultant Kevin Madden said. “Because of the attention it gets from traditional and digital media, it’s a national stage, one that helps candidates who are both well-known and unknown reach a national audience of very active conservatives.”

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who has said he will announce his intentions by the end of the month, received a “Run, John, Run” welcoming when he stepped to the stage Friday. If he is to run, Thune admitted he has some catching up to do when it comes to a national profile.

“It’s fair to say that I don’t have the same national name recognition of some of my more famous Republican colleagues,” Thune said before remaining coy about which way he was leaning. “I’ve been to Iowa plenty of times, but it’s usually on my way to South Dakota.”

Thune’s profile, already on the rise, got a boost just by showing up.

Organized by the American Conservative Union, CPAC is the quadrennial kick-off point for the GOP nomination race and offers activists an up-close perspective on the candidates hoping for their support and votes. 

Meanwhile, the straw poll, conducted throughout the three-day affair, allows candidates to gauge their own conservative support. Results will be announced tonight. 

The results serve as a critical early test of conservative support, and activists say they want a nominee this cycle who is more reflective of their ideals than Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) was in 2008.

“We don’t want a mistake like we did last time in terms of who our nominee is going to be against the Democrat incumbent,” incoming ACU Chairman Al Cardenas told Roll Call, citing CPAC’s importance in the process. “I also get a good sense that the shoppers this time around are going to be far more cautious.”

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, went directly after Obama in his Friday morning speech, criticizing the president’s record on both foreign and domestic issues. Romney spoke to a packed house and received several standing ovations, but he only hinted at his expected dive into the race.

“An uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction from a weak president,” Romney said. “Here at home, the president’s response to the economic crisis was the most expensive failed social experiment in modern history.”

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