At CPAC forum, potential GOP candidates must navigate social-fiscal tension

This weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference will bring together most of the GOP's potential 2012 presidential contenders (with two notable exceptions: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee). Here's who to watch.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 7:16 PM

A wide field of Republican potential presidential hopefuls will descend on Washington on Thursday for the conservative movement's biggest annual party, where they will navigate the tussle for attention between social conservatives and newly empowered tea party activists.

A year out from the Iowa caucuses, the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference is widely viewed, as it is every four years, as a forum for presidential message-testing.

This year, following the growth of the tea party movement and the huge gains Republicans made last year by focusing almost exclusively on economic issues, would-be candidates almost certainly will try to prove their credentials as fiscal conservatives who are ready to cut government and taxes, reduce the deficit and ease the burden of regulations on free enterprise.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), for instance, will talk about energy policy and replacing the Environmental Protection Agency. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty will describe how he lowered taxes and shrank government in a liberal state. Various other panelists will discuss a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, the federal income tax and the rise of the tea party movement.

But possible 2012 contenders will be tested on social issues, too. About half a dozen interest groups dedicated to such issues as banning abortion and same-sex marriage are boycotting CPAC's three days of speeches, panel discussions and sales of conservative-themed tchotchkes because of the participation of GOProud, an organization that supports fiscal conservatism as well as gay rights.

Sessions are scheduled on abortion politics and immigration reform, too. Social conservatives who will attend say they will watch the candidates for signs of loyalty to their causes.

"There is some concern that if people become too comfortable in not talking about the cultural issues, that that could ultimately curdle into a lack of interest," said Republican strategist Ralph Reed, a onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition. "And I understand that concern. And to some extent I share that concern."

CPAC is a project of the American Conservative Union, which began holding the conference in 1974 to educate and energize activists and to provide a stage for current and future political leaders to prove their conservatism. The gathering showcased the popularity among conservatives of former president Ronald Reagan, who made his first presidential bid in 1975 with support from the union - and who spoke at every CPAC gathering but one during his eight years in the White House.

Much of the action at CPAC takes place outside the formal sessions. The carnival atmosphere of the exhibit hall, packed with vendors and activists promoting various candidates and causes, makes it a popular site. Groups that registered for space this year range from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's Free and Strong America PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee to one that calls itself "The Constitution Failed."

And considering that about half of the 10,000 expected to attend are students, there is also a rowdy after-hours scene. Last year's festivities included a "Smoke Out the Terrorists" party at Queen's Cafe and Hookah in Adams Morgan and an invitation-only poker party with conservative celebrities.

This year, CPAC will serve mostly as a barometer for Republican presidential hopefuls, as it always does in the year before an election. In 2007, Romney propelled his presidential campaign into the spotlight by winning the event's straw poll, which this year will take place on Saturday, the conference's final day. (The following year, Romney won the straw poll again - only to use CPAC as a forum to suspend his campaign.)

Romney will return to the conference this week to test the waters of a 2012 bid. Other possible White House contenders on the agenda include: Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Gingrich, Pawlenty, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.).

Notable absences on the agenda include former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who said in an interview over the weekend on the Christian Broadcasting Network that she is troubled by the decision of some conservative groups to boycott the conference, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is scheduled to return Thursday from a trip to Israel.

Romney, in particular, will be watched closely at the conference for how he'll talk about Massachusetts's health-care overhaul, which his spokesman described last year as Romney's "signature" achievement but which has earned him criticism for its parallels to the federal overhaul that conservatives are seeking to overturn.

"I think Romney's health-care plan and his unwillingness to distance himself from it is a real albatross on his candidacy," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based political group that focuses on free-market ideas and helps organize local tea party groups. "Health care is a real issue."

As for the battle for attention between social and fiscal conservatives, advocates from both camps acknowledge that it remains an issue within the conservative movement that is likely to play out this week at CPAC. But they noted that most activists consider themselves both social and fiscal conservatives and suggested that there is not as much discord within their ranks as the boycott suggests.

"There are a lot of tea partyers who are social conservatives who believe that the focus on fiscal issues reflects the most important challenges our country is facing," Kibbe said. "I think that a lot of the dividing lines and the squabbling comes from national groups who have a stake in what issues they are talking about - but not from the activists themselves. I think the focus on fiscal issues is bringing more energy to the movement. Of course, that leaves some people unhappy, but the net positive is dramatic." Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company