At CPAC, Santorum, Gingrich and Romney try to bag conservative activist

February 10, 2012

On Friday, the Republican presidential race shrank to the size of a hotel ballroom. Three top contenders made pitches to conservative activists gathered in Washington — each man hoping that a speech could unite a movement that months of campaigning had not.

It couldn’t. But each candidate received loud ovations as he battled for the energized core of the Republican electorate.

Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) stressed his ideological purity. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) stressed his courage, casting himself as an angry outsider, beset by both Democrats and his own party’s establishment.

And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — the hobbled front-runner, still struggling to stop conservatives from turning to the other two — talked about his experience.

In what could be one of his most important speeches, due to the critical role played by party conservatives, Romney said he’d been living the ideals of the right for decades as a businessman and “severely conservative” governor in a liberal state.

“I know conservatism,” Romney said, repeating the word or its variants 24 times in his speech. “Because I have lived conservatism.”

Romney seemed to win over some of the activists. Yet there were lingering doubts.

“A little bit like the guy on the playground who gives himself a nickname” because no one else will do it, said Eric Kohn, 30, a public relations professional from Chicago who wore a lapel pin that said “Capitalism.” “He knows he’s never going to be monikered as a conservative by the rest of the movement.”

The three candidates spoke, hours apart, at a conference that drew a large and lively swath of the American right to the Marriott Wardman Park. The Conservative Political Action Conference is a famous stage for political theater: On Friday alone, there was a ventriloquist act, a group of protesters with their mouths taped shut (for the silence of poverty) and a man dressed as Britain’s King George III. “Digital liberty panel?” a young woman asked passing conference-goers outside a near-empty room. “No? There’s an open bar.”

But in the Marriott ballroom, Friday’s business was serious.

Santorum went first. Speaking with his wife and several of his children standing behind him, he argued that the way to beat President Obama in November was to nominate someone who was Obama’s ideological opposite.

In other words: him.

“I think we have learned our lesson. And the lesson is that we will no longer abandon and apologize for the principles, and principles that made this country great — for a hollow victory in November,” Santorum said.

He laid out hard-right positions on the idea of human-caused climate change (a “facade”) and President Obama’s health-care plan. Without naming Romney, Santorum said his competitor had been less conservative on both subjects in the past.

Foster Friess, a major donor to a super PAC supporting Santorum, was less coy. As he introduced Santorum, he told a joke about Romney’s past shifts in political belief.

“A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into a bar,” Friees said. “The bartender says, ‘Hi, Mitt!’ ”

That drew both cheers and boos.

Later, Romney took the stage to a loud ovation. He told the crowd he was the only candidate in the race who had never worked a day in Washington.

Even his time in the Massachusetts State House, Romney said, hadn’t changed him. “I served in government, but I didn’t inhale,” he said. “I’m still a business guy.”

Romney used his speech to underline his proposals to cut government spending, overhaul Medicare and boost the U.S. military. Echoing a message from many speakers, he said four more years of Obama would lead to debilitating debt and the erosion of American free enterprise and personal freedom.

“This is our moment. This is why we are conservatives,” Romney told the crowded room. “The task before us now is to reaffirm the convictions that unite us, and go forward shoulder to shoulder to secure the victory America deserves.”

Afterward, some in the audience said they’d been won over by Romney’s pitch.

“ ‘Believable’ is the best word I can say. And very strong,” said Fred Czerner, 68, a retired fighter pilot from Alexandria. It was enough to change his preference: “I came in really leaning more toward Santorum, but at some point, you really have to be pragmatic.”

“I think he’s closer than we think he is,” said Rick Barnes, 60, of Pasadena, Md. He meant closer to the conservative ideal: Barnes said he was still leaning toward Gingrich, but “I would not be dissatisfied with Mitt.”

Gingrich was the last candidate to appear. He gave the crowd an expanded version of his stump speech, which suggests overhauling the federal judiciary and abolishing the Department of Energy. For a tongue-in-cheek flourish, he proposed handing over the task of finding illegal immigrants to Federal Express. And Gingrich brought out the latest of what he called “bold proposals, which will promptly be labeled unrealistic.” He wanted to get rid of the federal civil service system, replacing it with something he said would be more efficient and cheap.

Gingrich was introduced by his wife, Callista, who said she will be taking a more visible role in his campaign.

All three candidates used their speeches to bash President Obama’s policy requiring religiously affiliated groups to provide health insurance coverage for contraception.

On Saturday, the conference will announce the results of its presidential straw poll. On Friday, there were only unofficial ways to track the candidates’ impact.

At the CPAC trade show, Romney buttons were selling much better after his speech than before. “Double,” said Fred Enten, at P.C. Buttons, holding up one that showed Romney’s face, and the words “Put America Back to Work.” He sold 50 in the hours after Romney’s speech.

But in the wide world of conservative buttons, that still wasn’t much. Enten’s stand had sold 300 buttons for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) that day alone. The second most popular candidate button was Gingrich’s.

And all of the candidates were trailing the two best-selling buttons of all. One was for Ronald Reagan, and another showed Obama’s face with the words “One Term.”

Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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