By Amy Gardner and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 11, 2011; 12:00 AM
The largest conservative gathering of the year began in Washington on Thursday with a parade of possible Republican presidential candidates determined to show that they have what it takes to defeat President Obama in 2012.
More than 11,000 activists and politicians convened for the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference to take stock of the contenders and of the conservative movement after Republicans' major gains in the 2010 midterm elections. The three-day meeting is part celebration of those victories and part an effort to remind the party's new leaders to live up to the promises of last year's campaign.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty will speak on Friday, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will appear on Saturday. Two prominent potential candidates, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, decided not to attend.
Opening day also included a visit by businessman Donald Trump, who sees a wide-open race for the Republican nomination and said he will decide by June whether to join the field. "You're hired," someone shouted from the audience as he prepared to speak, a play on his "You're fired" line from his television program. Like the other speakers, Trump was critical of Obama's leadership, asserting that the United States is "becoming a laughingstock" around the world.
The annual CPAC conference is a rite of passage for Republican leaders, with would-be White House contenders competing for attention and affection with other elected officials as well as prominent conservative commentators and writers in a vast hotel ballroom filled with activists primed for hot rhetoric.
There was, as always, a carnival atmosphere, with attendees scurrying about the hotel and exhibitors peddling books, posters and political philosophies. Despite a boycott by some conservative groups protesting the participation of GOProud, an organization that supports gay rights, there was little evidence of a real battle for attention between social and fiscal conservatives.
Tea party heroes played prominent roles on opening day. The movement was credited with energizing voters in the fall to kick out politicians by the dozen who voted for the nation's health-care overhaul, economic stimulus bill and corporate bailouts. But with considerable focus on the fiscal issues that dominated the midterm elections, the speakers nonetheless bowed as well to social and religious conservatives in their remarks.
Bachmann, a tea party favorite, celebrated the "three legs of the conservative stool" - social, fiscal and national security issues. Gingrich, who snaked through the ballroom to a thumping beat, called for the passage of an unequivocal new measure that would not allow federal funding for abortions. Santorum accused Obama of refusing to "condemn evil" in Egypt, where protesters, including Islamist extremists, are demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
Still, fiscal issues dominated much of the conversation. In a speech that opened the festivities Thursday morning and roused audience members to their feet several times, Bachmann pushed for even deeper cuts from Obama's proposed budget than what House Republicans had "served up." Gingrich urged the replacement of the Environmental Protection Agency with an agency friendlier to economic growth.
"This is not about tear down, walk away, sell out to corporate interests and all that baloney," he said. "The question is: Could you, in fact, develop a better solution than Washington-based, command-and-control, top-down regulations?"
One of the stars on opening day was Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), another tea party favorite and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a libertarian and former presidential candidate. Rand Paul packed the largest crowd of the day into a cavernous conference room and forced CPAC's host, the American Conservative Union, to set up a large overflow hall nearby.
Paul drew spirited cheers by trumping the fiscal messages of all the other speakers so far with a call to cut $500 billion from the federal budget. He also thanked the tea partyers in the crowd for their role in the 2010 wins.
"This town is talking about the debt and deficit constantly," he said. "The tea party made that happen. We are not inherently exceptional as Republicans. You keep us so by keeping the pressure on."
Trump riled supporters of both Pauls at the conference when he bluntly stated that the Texas congressman could not get elected president. After a chorus of boos, Trump didn't back down, repeating the statement.
The other star Thursday was the political theater of the event itself. A group from Ronald Reagan's presidential foundation gave out little bags of jelly beans in honor of what would have been the former president's 100th birthday and played a constant loop on a video monitor of the more than half a dozen speeches Reagan gave at CPAC. A crew from the Townhall.com conservative news site gave passersby the choice of a T-shirt, a yo-yo or lip balm. A tall, middle-aged man in a cowboy hat wore a T-shirt with the words "Ask Me Why Cops Say Legalize Pot" on his back. The National Rifle Association operated a large-screen laser-gun video game for attendees to play.
And everywhere, reporters and camera crews documented the theatrics.
"Is Donald Trump gay?" asked Michael Moynihan of the libertarian Reason Magazine in a video interview with Jimmy LaSalvia, the founder of GOProud. LaSalvia had just told Moynihan that Trump had made a last-minute decision to speak at CPAC on Thursday at GOProud's request.
"Well, I think his record is out there on his sexual orientation," LaSalvia responded. "I'll just put it that way."
For the potential presidential contenders, message-testing and image rehabilitation are major activities at CPAC, particularly after a wave election cycle in which even Republicans were thrown out for veering too far from conservative principles of limited government, low taxes and decreased spending. Gingrich's promise to revamp the EPA contrasts starkly with some of his statements, made just a few years ago, that some kind of carbon emissions restrictions were necessary to address climate change.
With Obama's new health-care law the target of constant attack at the conference, Romney, who won CPAC's straw poll in 2007 and 2008, will face much tougher questions about his support of similar state-level measure in Massachusetts.
Staff writers Aaron Blake, Chris Cillizza, Melina Mara and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.