Possible Republican candidates for president 'try out' before CPAC, governors

By Liz Sidoti
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A03

Republicans who might want President Obama's job flocked to Washington this weekend and repeatedly ripped into the Democrat, an early tryout of sorts for their party's nomination.

"Barack Obama has created at least three jobs that I know of: Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie and Scott Brown," former House speaker Newt Gingrich told a fawning crowd Saturday, referring to the GOP candidates who prevailed recently in the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey and the U.S. Senate contest in Massachusetts.

He predicted that Republicans would take control of Congress this fall and added: "We'll elect a new president in 2012."

In appearance after appearance, possible GOP presidential contenders used two national platforms -- a caucus of conservatives and a gathering of governors -- to promote their credentials and test their strength in an incredibly fluid field a full two years before the GOP chooses its nominee.

Along with Gingrich, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania courted conservatives with long speeches at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour held court at the National Governors Association meeting as chairman of the GOP governors, and Govs. Mitcell E. Daniels Jr. of Indiana and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana attended. Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty plugged away at both events.

Among possible candidates missing: 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's presence was limited to a video shown to a small group of conservatives.

No Republican has announced a bid. Several are considering it or are laying the groundwork. They are putting campaign teams in place, visiting early primary voting states and using political action committees to sow goodwill -- and money -- among the party's candidates.

GOP hopefuls are emboldened by Obama's weakened poll numbers just a year into office, and they see an opportunity to capitalize on anger rippling through the electorate over his policies.

"If you see me losing 40 pounds that means I'm either running or have cancer," said Barbour, a former lobbyist and GOP chairman who Republican insiders say would be a formidable candidate. He said he would focus this year on helping fellow Republicans in governor's races. "If after these elections are over there's anything to think about, I'll think about it then," he said.

Still, he added: "I think it is unlikely that I'll run for president, but that does not qualify as ruling it out." He made a brief stop at the conservatives' meeting Friday.

None of the would-be candidates speaking before that crowd mentioned running for president. Nonetheless, signs of the next White House race were everywhere.

Each speaker delivered what could only be described as early versions of a routine campaign address, testing messages before an important part of the base in Republican primary contests. Potential campaign advisers gathered in the ballroom corners.

Supporters encouraged attendees to vote their way during a 2012 straw poll. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian who has railed against spending and the Federal Reserve, won the most support, followed by Romney, Palin and Pawlenty. The results mean little more than bragging rights for the winner.

After his address Friday morning, Pawlenty shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures along what appeared to be a makeshift "rope line" of the kind presidential candidates are accustomed to; aides were close by.

Pawlenty is far less known nationally than Romney, so Pawlenty's speech was intended to introduce his biography, outline his vision and take on Obama. He did all three.

As the RGA's vice chairman, Pawlenty had a high profile role at the governor's gathering and was appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. Barbour was booked on "Fox News Sunday." On Saturday, Santorum, looking for a political comeback, played off Obama's hope-and-change campaign slogan, saying: "Mr. President, America is the hope. And you can keep the change." Gingrich, who was the last to speak, made a grand entrance into the standing room only ballroom from a side door. He shook supporters' hands as he made his way to the stage as "Eye of the Tiger" played loudly and the audience chanted "Newt."

-- Associated Press

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