For most of last week, I attended the American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. The annual gathering of conservatives is like no other. Not only does one get to hear countless speeches from people with presidential aspirations, but you also get the opportunity to interact with some of this nation’s greatest conservative minds.
As an Iowan who always eagerly awaits the next presidential caucus, CPAC provides an early glimpse of the candidates who are likely to begin visiting Iowa to “help” us elect Republicans up and down the ballot this fall. The speaking lineup at CPAC is full of potential presidential candidates. Some of these candidates are more apparent than other.
The most obvious individuals with presidential aspirations were former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Then there are lesser known individuals with their eyes on Iowa. Guys like Congressman Mike Pence and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum fit this description. Finally, there are those whose names always seem tied to the next presidential election. This list would include Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Ron Paul. Mike Huckabee was surprisingly absent, and for the second year in a row, Sarah Palin was nowhere to be found.
CPAC is likely to have been the largest stage for potential presidential candidates in 2010. With that in mind, let’s look as see who did themselves the most good or harm at CPAC.
1. Congressman Ron Paul
If any one candidate worked CPAC to produce a favorable straw poll result, it was Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Campaign for Liberty, which is closely affiliated with Paul, paid for hundreds of students to attend the conference and ultimately support Paul in the CPAC straw poll. While some in the media have scoffed at the results of CPAC’s straw poll (Paul won with 31% of the vote), you can’t blame a candidate for working the system.
Congressman Paul sent a loud message at CPAC last week. You might think that he’s crazy or a little too radical for a lot of Republicans, but you have to admit that the current political environment is perfect for Paul’s brand of politics. Paul’s CPAC victory will have ramifications on next year’s conference. The results of the CPAC straw poll are always interesting, but next year the results will be a much bigger deal as there will be official candidates in the race by that time.
2. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum
Santorum is considered by most to be a long shot as a presidential candidate, but if any candidate did himself the most good with his CPAC speech, it was Santorum. Santorum’s major liability is the fact that he lost his re-election bid in 2006. His other obstacle is his 2004 endorsement of Sen. Arlen Specter.
Santorum showed remorse for his 2004 endorsement of Specter. Santorum told the conference, “How many times have I said this in my almost 20 years in marriage, ‘I should have listened to my wife.’ Make no mistake about it, I will be working day and night for Pat Toomey to be the next senator from Pennsylvania.” In his question and answer segment, a conference attendee asked Santorum why he doesn’t run for the Senate again. He quickly responded that Pat Toomey earned the right to be the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Santorum’s speech was also one of the more serious of the potential presidential candidates. He flexed his national security bona fides. He attacked the Obama administration’s fiscal policies, and nobody doubts his positions on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and traditional marriage.
Santorum has a lot of work to do before people consider him to be serious presidential contender, but the fact that he is a full-spectrum conservative makes him one of the most complete candidates in race should he decide to run.
3. Congressman Mike Pence
Like Santorum, Pence has a lot of people to convince before being considered a serious presidential contender. Another similarity between Pence and Santorum was the way both used CPAC to indicate to that they are serious about running for President.
I’ve seen Pence speak at the last three CPAC events. His message has been consistent over the years, but this year, Pence added a section to his speech that was dedicated to social issues, which is another indication that Pence is positioning himself for a presidential run.
The content of Pence’s speech was perfect. His delivery however, is hit or miss based on one’s personal tastes. Pence got his start on radio and his ability to speak is excellent. The only problem is that sometimes it seems like he’s the George W. Bush impersonator who made an appearance at the Ronald Reagan dinner on Friday night. The winks and “who’d ‘ve thunk its” are not necessary and distract from his message.
4. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
If anyone is already considered to be a candidate in 2012, it’s Romney. Not only did he deliver another solid CPAC address, but he also improved his delivery of some very funny one-liners and jokes. When it comes to fiscal issues, nobody doubts Romney’s credentials. His speech at CPAC focused on fiscal policy and national security. What has been absent in his recent addresses to CPAC is his position on social conservative issues like abortion and gay marriage.
While people like David Keene, (who chairs the American Conservative Union) see Romney as a thoughtful and measured conservative, grassroots Republicans still question whether Romney’s conversion on those social issues was made out of conviction or convenience. By ignoring these issues, Romney is only helping spread doubt about where he is at on these issues.
5. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
Every year, Newt walks to the CPAC stage like he is the President of the United State who is about to give a State of the Union address. The only difference is that the crowd goes absolutely crazy. Seriously, it’s nuts. While Newt’s entrance is over the top, his speech was serious. He challenged conservatives to find ways for principled bipartisanship, warning that America doesn’t have the time to wait for a Republican controlled congress.
The only problem with Newt’s call for principled bipartisanship is that he has shown a willingness to cross the aisle with people like Hillary Clinton on healthcare reform and Al Gore on global warming. While he might have been making an attempt at bipartisanship, this are not generally issue on which you can compromise and remain “principled.” Newt didn’t mention his previous bipartisan efforts, but a panelist who spoke after him did.
6. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty
Governor Pawlenty had a perfect weekend planned. The Minnesota Governor had a prime speaking spot at CPAC on Friday followed by an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday. Make no doubt about it, this was supposed to be Pawlenty’s coming out party. While it was okay, it wasn’t the weekend that he and his advisors had hoped for.
Pawlenty’s speech was odd. The first half was terrible. He rambled, delivered poor jokes, and failed to make a clear point. The second half of his speech was far better. That is when he spoke extensively about the role that God plays in our society and government. He then went on to highlight his record as governor and some of the core principles on which he bases his political ideology.
As the new face to national politics, Pawleny could have used his CPAC speech upstage the rest of his completion. He failed to do that. Instead of bowling a strike, he picked up a difficult spare.
7. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour
Barbour wasn’t scheduled to address CPAC this year, but he popped in and said a few words at Friday night’s Ronald Reagan dinner. It’s obvious that his focus was not on his own political ambitions, but rather the 2010 elections. Barbour has a luxury the other candidates on this list don’t have. If he is able to guide Republicans to numerous gubernatorial victories this fall, he will have plenty of options available to him. Barbour is the Chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
8/9. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee/Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin
Palin and Huckabee both skipped CPAC and questioned the organizations credibility publically. Their criticism of the leaders of CPAC are not without merit, but when the entire political world stops every February to focus on CPAC every year, you would be a fool not to use the event and the stage it provides for your own good.
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