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.”
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.”
Other CPAC speakers included Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who were all included in this year’s straw poll.
Former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Jon Huntsman of Utah were also included in the straw poll but were not in attendance.