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Conservative Political Action Conference begins in Washington

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of right-wing activists and politicians, kicked off Thursday.

"When it comes to pinning blame, pin the tail on the donkeys," Romney told the thousands who had gathered for his speech.

By 10:30 a.m., the conservative movement had already seemed to crown its latest darling: Marco Rubio, 38, a son of Cuban immigrants who is running an outsider's campaign in Florida for U.S. Senate. The audience showered Rubio with applause as he ruminated in a keynote address about American exceptionalism and his own improbable journey.

"It's sometimes easy to forget how special America really is," Rubio said, making his debut on the national stage. "But I was raised by exiles, by people who know what it is like to lose their country, by people who have a unique perspective on why elections matter, or lack thereof, by people who clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world. . . . What makes America great is that there are dreams that are impossible everywhere else but are possible here."

Rubio is running in a hotly contested GOP primary campaign against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a race that has pitted the conservative grass roots, which have embraced Rubio, against the more moderate party establishment.

Rubio's assaults on Obama's economic policies and his administration's handling of national security enthralled the activists.

"We will do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to defeat radical Islamic terrorism," Rubio said. "We will punish their allies like Iran. We will stand with our allies like Israel. We will target and we will destroy terrorist cells and the leaders of those cells. The ones that survive, we will capture them. We will get useful information from them.

"And then," Rubio continued, trying to speak over the boisterous crowd, "we will bring them to justice in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo -- not a civilian courtroom in Manhattan."

Romney sounded similar themes as he defended his party against allegations from Democratic leaders that Republicans have become "the party of 'no.' "

"Before we move away from this 'no' epithet the Democrats are fond of applying to us, let's ask the Obama folks why they say no -- no to a balanced budget, no to reforming entitlements, no to malpractice reform, no to missile defense in Eastern Europe, no to prosecuting Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a military tribunal, and no to tax cuts that create new jobs.

"You see, we conservatives don't have a corner on saying no," Romney continued. "We're just the ones who say it when that's the right thing to say."

After distancing himself from the Bush administration during his 2008 campaign, Romney on Thursday defended the Bush-Cheney record, drawing hearty applause from the audience. "I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly," he said, adding: "He kept us safe. I respect his silence even in the face of the assaults on his record that come from this administration. But at the same time, I also respect the loyalty and indefatigable defense of truth that comes from our 'I-don't-give-a-damn' vice president Dick Cheney."

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