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Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in a far more fiery speech than last year, attacked Obama and touted his record of cutting spending in a state that elected Democrats Al Franken, Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey to the Senate.
“We cut government in Minnesota. If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere,” Pawlenty said.
Romney took advantage of the CPAC spotlight four years ago as well, using much of that speech as an introduction — defending his record as governor and touting his conservative social views, which had been in question.
It worked, as Romney won the straw poll with 21 percent, ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and McCain, among others.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) emphasized the importance of social issues. In a gaggle with reporters following his speech, he said, “How can you have a strong economy if you don’t have strong families?”
But his speech was one of the most poorly received among the crowd of 2012 contenders.
“Among conservatives at this point, Romney is the frontrunner because he’s the frontrunner,” said outgoing ACU Chairman David Keene, who is leaving to become president of the National Rifle Association. “But that’s a dangerous spot to be in.”
The straw poll results have not proven to be a good indicator of who will win the Republican nomination, but they offer some insight into whom conservatives prefer.
“If you’re somebody who’s running for president, what’s really important on the straw poll is not that you win but that you’re in that top two or three,” Keene said. “You look to see, ‘Do I have a piece of this?’ But I don’t think there’s anybody that really dominates” this year.
In early 2007, Republicans were still recovering from a bruising 2006 election cycle in which Democrats won the majority in both the House and Senate. This year, after a good midterm cycle for the GOP, conservative attendees had an aura of momentum.
“2010 was the appetizer,” Gingrich said Thursday. “2012 is the entrée.”
CPAC was held the week of President Ronald Reagan’s centennial birthday celebration, and several potential candidates cited Reagan in their speeches.
Gingrich at once tied himself to the conservative icon and sought to dispel any notion that Obama was somehow walking in Reagan’s footsteps. “I knew Ronald Reagan,” he said. “Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.”
None of the speakers during the three-day conference believed to be considering bids has officially announced his candidacy. Comparatively, the three top Democratic candidates in the 2008 election were all in by Feb. 10, 2007, when Obama announced his candidacy from Springfield, Ill.
CPAC 2011 opened exactly four years later with not a single Republican in the race.
“It seems like the collective strategy of the field is to not give anyone a glimpse of a strategy — at least not yet,” said Madden, who served as national press secretary for Romney’s 2008 campaign.
“2008 was a cycle where the top-tier candidates were heavily staffed and keeping full schedules and 18-hour days in early states as early as January. That fast start drained campaigns of both financial and manpower resources very early on.”