GOP speakers court key group at conservative conference

By Philip Rucker and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 20, 2010

The second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference turned into a call to arms Friday as aspiring national leaders and other favorites of the movement's grass roots warned that President Obama and his party have ushered in an era of American decline.

As they exhorted activists to help overturn the Democrats' congressional majorities in November, speaker after speaker took the dais and touched familiar chords of conservatism: smaller government, lower taxes, limited federal spending and a muscular assertion of American power abroad. They rallied a few thousand partisans who had arrived at the Marriott Wardman Park ballroom encouraged, even giddy, by the prospect of Republican successes in the midterm elections and beyond.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) received one of the most thunderous ovations so far in the three-day conference when he delivered a stinging assault on Obama's agenda and a plea to deliver the nation from "the bondage of big government." Pence said, "This is our moment" -- not just for a Republican majority on Capitol Hill, but for a conservative one.

"Now's the time," Pence said. "It's time for all of us to do all we can to preserve what makes this country great. If you can give, give. If you can speak, speak. If you can write, write. And if you can run, run."

The loudest applause for Pence came when he mentioned the upcoming trial of Sept. 11 terror suspect Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Pence said the U.S. intelligence community should be given the tools to fight terrorism as a war and then called on the Obama administration to alter its plan to try some terror suspects in civilian courts.

And when Pence updated a line used by conservatives at past gatherings, he brought down the house: "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job, and a depression is when you lose your job, and a recovery is when [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi loses her job."

Pence was among a handful of Republicans mentioned as potential 2012 presidential candidates who hoped their speeches at CPAC might endear them to this important part of the Republican electorate. On Thursday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney addressed the convention, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) joined Pence on Friday's roster.

In his speech, Pawlenty delivered a forceful rebuke of Obama's first year in office, saying repeatedly that conservatives "will fight back." He embraced the grass-roots revolt against the Democratic leadership in Washington, drawing a parallel with Ulysses S. Grant, the scrappy Union general who went on to become president after the Civil War.

"The implication is, we're kind of bumpkins," Pawlenty said. "Well, history is on our side. The Constitution is on our side. We're on the side of freedom. We're on the side of individual responsibility. We're on the side of free markets. We're on the side of rule of law. We're on the side of limited government. And, like Grant, we fight."

Pawlenty, who is considering a 2012 candidacy, sharply attacked Obama, suggesting that his administration was making the United States "a beggar nation" because of the increasing reliance on foreign debt. He went so far as to compare Democrats to embattled golfer Tiger Woods, saying that "we can learn a lot" from Woods's news conference Friday.

"Not from Tiger, but from his wife," Pawlenty said. "She said, 'I've had enough.' She said, 'No more.' I think we should take a page out of her playbook and take a nine-iron and smash the window out of the big government in this country."

CPAC speakers largely focused their remarks on fiscal conservatism and a strong national defense, but Friday's speeches also included pointed language on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues. Pawlenty, seeking to burnish his conservative bona fides, embraced religion as the first of four principles that conservatives should follow.

"God's in charge," he said. "There are some people who say, 'Oh, you know, Pawlenty, don't bring that up. You know it's politically incorrect.' Hogwash."

"That's right," some in the audience shouted.

"These are enshrined in the founding documents and perspective of our country," Pawlenty continued. "In the Declaration of Independence, it says we're endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. It doesn't say we're endowed by Washington, D.C., or endowed by the bureaucrats or endowed by state government."

Throughout the conference, several speakers blamed Democrats for an America they said is on the wane. Pence quoted former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who, as she was coming to power, described her country as on its knees. "America is not yet on its knees, but it's bowed," he said.

Pence then asserted, without naming names, that "officials in this administration" say privately that they see their job as "managing America's decline." He then said, "The job of the American president is not to manage American decline. The job of the American president is to reverse it."

An hour later, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) went further, suggesting that Obama -- through economic policies she labeled "Bailout Nation" -- is leading the country toward an economic collapse on the scale of 1920s Germany and 1940s Argentina.

"People can indulge in Fantasy Football, but you can't indulge in Fantasy Economics," Bachmann said. "It just doesn't work."

"The joy of being an American is that we get to choose," she added. "We get to choose our destiny. Whether it's decline or whether it's greatness, it's in our hands to make the choice. . . . It sounds to me like someone is choosing decline."

Bachmann, a "tea party" heroine, was treated like a rock star when she burst onto the stage to Tom Jones's "She's a Lady" -- a cheeky reference to Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) having admonished her recently on the radio to "act like a lady."

She did not disappoint her fans with her speech Friday, taking them on a journey through American colonial history and speaking passionately of liberty, the right to life and the pursuit of happiness.

"It is of this suffering and of this self-sacrifice that our nation was built upon," she said, her voice quivering with emotion. "They chose greatness for us, rather than decline. That is our history. That is the American story."

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