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February 15th, 2011

Who Helped Themselves the Most at CPAC?

By Craig Robinson

We are now less than one year away from the Iowa caucuses.  Last week we ranked the top ten potential presidential candidates in Iowa.  Since that time, we have been able to see all of them share the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Washington D.C.  Some of the candidates helped themselves, but others didn’t.

Before we get started, it’s important to know that the ranking that each candidate received is based on how their performance at CPAC will help or hinder their potential Iowa caucus campaigns.  Judging these speeches and everything else that went on at the conference isn’t as easy as comparing the number of people in the room and gauging the audience’s reaction to what was said.

As you will see, some candidates helped themselves by just being allowed to take the stage, while others cowered from the issues they must address if they want to win the nomination.  Remember, this ranking is from an Iowa perspective.  Most of these candidates have already traveled to Iowa and given speeches.

1. Nobody

This spot remains void, because nowhere at CPAC did one of the candidates break away from the field.  A number of candidates gave good speeches, but they all lack something.  Some don’t seem to “get it,” while others do, but have little to show in terms of leadership.  When it comes to competency, I think almost all of the candidates have shown that they are up to the task.  Getting elected, however, is a different thing.

2. Tim Pawlenty

When I asked Pawlenty what he was going to speak about at CPAC in an interview last Tuesday, he gave me an awe-shucks blow off and said that he hadn’t even written the speech yet.  During the interview we also discussed the uniqueness of the CPAC crowd.  It’s loaded with young people, so do you speak to them or do you give a red meat speech to the camera?  This is a dilemma with which most of the candidates had to deal.

Pawlenty struck the perfect balance in his speech.  It wasn’t a speech that we are going to be talking about 40 years form now, but it had plenty of substance and was well delivered and received.  He didn’t avoid talking about the social issues.  Like one would expect, he did well talking about fiscal issues and Obamacare, and did a decent job when discussing foreign policy.  Of the current field of candidates that are angling for votes in Iowa, I thought Pawlenty shined.

3. Newt Gingrich

In planning my days at CPAC, there was one thing that I really wanted to do, but failed to get done.  I wanted to plant myself on the aisle and record Gingrich’s over the top entrance that is set to the music of “Eye of the Tiger.”  I was late and barely got into the room while he was being introduced.  While I didn’t get to play the role of Shelia Jackson Lee who camps out on the aisle so she can greet the President at the State of the Union address, I did basically end up following Gingrich as he made his way through the crowd.  Like always, people enjoyed Newt, but I didn’t think the crowd sustained its excitement for Gingrich like they have in year’s past.

Gingrich hit all the right notes. His speech focused on a list of conservative issues that could turn our country around.  He noted that all of these issues have wide bipartisan support of the American people.  If any candidate did a good job of offering solutions to the nation’s problems, it was Gingrich.

The problem with his speech is that he got a little too cute.  He couched all of his proposals by saying that President Obama could earn an invite to CPAC next year if he implements this agenda.  It’s easy to get the point that he was trying to get across to the audience, but Republicans and conservatives are looking for their leader, not a way for Obama to get re-elected.  Gingrich also disappointed because I had just seen him knock a speech out of the park at the Iowa Renewable Fuels summit a couple week ago.  His CPAC speech wasn’t able to match it.

4. Rick Santorum

Santorum gets a good ranking because his CPAC speech proves that he’s really the only bona fide social conservative who is currently running.  Sure Pawlenty, Gingrich and others addressed social issues in their speeches, but Santorum is the real deal, and that makes a difference in a state like Iowa.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post had Santorum on his losers list because, when he addressed the crowd, the room wasn’t full.  The time slot that a candidate gets at CPAC make a huge difference, and being the first speaker after lunch is a tough draw.  I was actually impressed at how much the room filled up during his speech.  Its also interesting to note that he was the only candidate who took questions from the audience.  On the downside, I thought it was strange that he wore glasses during his speech.

5. Mitch Daniels

Much has been made out of Daniels’ “truce” on social issues and his CPAC speech.  Personally, I wish that he had delivered his speech to the entire conference instead of a crowd of 500 or so that paid $100 per ticket for dinner.  That said, I think Mitch Daniels probably gave one of the best speeches of the entire conference.  His speech was flawlessly delivered, he interjected just the right amount of humor, and he provided the serious content that is required of a potential presidential candidate.

The only problem is that he refused to discuss social issues despite the fact that he has a solid pro-life record.  What Daniels fails to realize is that, if he would simply address social issues up front and then transition to the fiscal crisis that he wants to focus on, he would probably be the clear front-runner in the race.  By insisting on truce on social issues, he is going to be bombarded by the very subject he doesn’t want to spend time talking about.

Daniels should take a page out of Steve Forbes’ playbook.  Like Daniels, Forbes avoided talking about social issues in his 1996 campaign, but in 2000 he began every campaign event by addressing social issues.  Did that make him the best social conservative in the race? No, but it allowed him to focus on the issues about which he was the most passionate.

6. Ron Paul

Once again, Paul and his youthful supporters dominated CPAC.  As we saw in 2008, Paul’s faithful lot will travel across the county to support their candidate.  The problem for Paul is that you are either devotedly voting for him or probably can’t stand him.  His sometimes-obnoxious supporters don’t help their candidate grow and expand his support base by calling former Vice President Dick Cheney a war criminal, murdering scum, and a draft dodger.  If CPAC were kindergarten, Paul’s supporters would have had “Doesn’t play well with others” written on their report cards.

7. Haley Barbour

Even though Barbour’s speech didn’t get the CPAC crowd hootin’ and hollerin’, he did deliver one of the event’s better speeches.  It’s also noteworthy that Barbour took time to praise everyone from his friend Mitch Daniels to Sarah Palin in his speech.  As an Iowan, I thought Barbour did himself the most good by stressing his pro-life accomplishments while in office.  This is necessary since he bungled the issue while giving a speech in Iowa in 2009.

Those who expect Barbour to behave the same way he did while he was leading the Republican Governors Association have another thing coming.  As a candidate himself, Barbour can stress his personal beliefs more comfortably that when he’s trying to get a whole slew of Republicans elected from different parts of the county.

8. Michele Bachmann

The fiery congresswoman from Minnesota did a great job of getting the audience jazzed up at the start of the conference.  While highly entertaining, Bachmann’s speech lacked the seriousness that one needs if he or she is actually going to run for president.  I still think Bachmann would do extremely well in the Iowa caucuses, but she needs to be seen as a serious leader if she wants to be the Republican nominee.  Inviting college kids to a party with an open bar reception just didn’t seem presidential.

9. Herman Cain

Cain delivered the best acronym of the convention when he described the tactics of the liberal left.  S.I.N. stands for “shift the subject”, “ignore the facts,” and “resort to name-calling.”  Cain is a talented speaker who proved that he belonged on the stage with the other candidates.

10. Mitt Romney

If you are buying stock in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, you might want to reconsider.  Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post declared Romney a winner because he finished second in the CPAC straw poll and by delivering a good speech and by doing no harm to his eventual campaign.  I couldn’t disagree more.

At some point, Romney will be forced to address the issue of healthcare, which he avoided at CPAC.  I don’t think this is an issue that he can simply explain away.  There are 26 states that have joined the lawsuit against Obamacare.  This means that Romney’s record on healthcare is a liability in a majority of the states.  Is he going to skip them all?

Romney also got a heavy dose of what life is going to be like without John McCain in the race.  In 2008, many well-known conservatives jumped on the Romney bandwagon when it became apparent that McCain could win the nomination.  Those same people are now distancing themselves from Romney.

When Ann Coulter was asked about the 2012 field she said, “If you don’t run Chris Christie, Romney will be the nominee and we’ll lose.

Ouch.  That hurts.

11. John Thune

Thune’s speech was uneventful and not memorable.  While that’s probably a bit harsh, he didn’t stand out from the crowd.  If anything surprised me, it was his appearance.  He looks pretty good on camera, but in person, he looked emaciated and like he might suffer from jaundice.

I also think that Thune’s flirtation with a presidential run is over now that Jon Kyl announced his retirement from the Senate.  Thune would seem to be a shoe-in for a leadership role, and he could eventually supplant Mitch McConnell as the Republican leader in the near future.  I look for him to stay put.

12. Gary Johnson

Johnson was allowed to address the conference, but he clearly wasn’t on par with the other potential presidential candidates.  He will surely milk his third place finish in the CPAC straw poll for all its worth, but Johnson probably just experienced the high point in his candidacy.

13. The Donald

Perhaps Donald Trump provided the most exciting moment at CPAC.  Trump sauntered onto the CPAC stage to deliver his prepared speech.  Trump was at his best when jarring with the spunky CPAC audience that was full of Ron Paul supports since newly elected U.S. Senator Rand Paul was to follow The Donald.

I’m not going to do his interaction with the crowd justice by writing about it, so take the time and watch his ten-minute speech.

Personally, I always get a chuckle when someone who is unelectable calls out someone for being unelectable, even though that person holds elected office.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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