By Dan Balz and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:59 PM
On a day of history in the Middle East, there was one topic virtually absent from the speeches of prospective 2012 Republican presidential candidates at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee's convention: Egypt.
The would-be contenders - and others who addressed the gathering - struck a series of common conservative themes, such as reducing the size of government as well as projecting strength and muscle abroad. All attacked President Obama for his domestic and foreign policies.
But for the most part, they had little to say about the nation's policy toward Egypt, whether to praise the demonstrators whose protests forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down, or to offer the principles that should guide U.S. policy as the American and Israeli ally takes the next steps toward democracy.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney didn't mention Egypt at all in his speech. Nor did Sen. John Thune (S.D.), although his text included a line that said, "Let's stand with those around the world who are risking their lives for freedom." Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty made a glancing reference, criticizing Obama as appeasing U.S. adversaries, including "Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood."
It was left to Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) to step into the vacuum. The libertarian conservative, who drew an enthusiastic audience of supporters, offered a contrarian view. In a party that has championed the spread of freedom as part of its recent foreign policy and whose leaders helped keep Mubarak in power for decades in the name of stability in the Middle East, Paul stood out as a dissenter.
Saying he disagrees with the idea that the United States has "a moral responsibility to spread our goodness around the world," Paul added to cheers from the crowd, "We need to do a lot less a lot sooner, not only in Egypt but around the world."
The prospective White House candidates came to the conference, sponsored by the American Conservative Union, to try to impress a part of the conservative movement, not necessarily to comment on the news of the day. But given the difficulty of calibrating U.S. policy in the middle of fast-moving events, they choose a safer course - while still holding up Obama for criticism.
Romney devoted much of his speech to economic issues. He called the president's economic program "the most expensive failed social experiment in modern history." On foreign policy, he said, "The cause of liberty cannot endure much more of Obama's 'They get, we give' diplomacy."
Asked why Romney had chosen not to address Egypt, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom replied via e-mail, "The governor wanted to concentrate his remarks on jobs and the economy."
Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant rejected that his boss was "shying away from Egypt," noting that he discussed the issue with conservative bloggers Friday and would surely be asked about it in weekend talk-show appearances.
Another topic noticeably absent from Romney's speech was health care. Many conservatives have criticized Romney for signing a health-care overhaul law in Massachusetts that is similar to the one Obama pushed as president and have called on the former governor to explain his actions more fully.
Pawlenty won his biggest applause when he called for a more muscular foreign policy. "Bullies respect strength, they don't respect weakness," he said. "So when the United States of America projects its national security interests here and around the world, we need to do it with strength." He called on Obama to "get tough on our enemies, not our friends," adding, "Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country." That, too, produced a standing ovation.
Thune said the administration has not stood up for allies such as Israel and has not been tough on Islamic radicals. He also criticized Obama for the spending that has taken place over the past two years.
"Since 2008, we have witnessed the largest expansion in the size of government since the 1960s," he said. "All that government means a lot less freedom, and it comes with a hefty price tag."
To remedy this, Thune proposed a novel approach. "Let's create a new congressional committee whose sole purpose is to reduce the deficit by cutting spending," he said. "There are 26 committees or subcommittees in Congress that spend your money; it's high time we have at least one dedicated to saving your money." He did not explain how such a panel would work.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels issued an economic call to arms as he wrapped up Friday's speeches. Calling the growing federal debt the new "red menace," he said Republicans must lead a crusade to tackle the country's fiscal problems and to build a broad-based coalition to get it done.
"No enterprise - small or large, public or private - can remain self-governing, let alone successful, so deeply in hock to others as we are about to be," he said.
On Thursday, the opening day of the conference, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) set himself apart by mentioning the turmoil in Egypt. He took a different tack than Paul, accusing Obama of siding against Egypt, which he described as an American ally in the Middle East.
Santorum, who is likely to announce a run for president in the coming months, contrasted the president's handling of Egypt with his handling of the street protests in Iran earlier in his administration. He accused Obama of siding with Iranian leaders during those demonstrations two years ago.
"And so what does this president do when faced with that situation? He sides with that regime," Santorum said. "This time, what does the president of the United States do? He sides with the protesters."
He said the administration sent a message of weakness in each case. "President Obama has refused to look at the situation in Iran and Egypt and around that world and to call evil, evil. To identify the enemy," Santorum said. "This is someone who doesn't believe in truth and evil and America."
The power of the tea party movement has been evident throughout the CPAC conference. One more sign of that came Friday during a question-and-answer session with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) on enacting a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. It's a popular idea this year at the conference, but one participant wanted to know why he should trust Hatch to push it through when the lawmaker voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, one of the first big bailout bills of 2008.
The question was met with loud cheers, but another contingent clapped just as loudly when Hatch defended his vote, which he said he took to prevent a national depression. "You may disagree, but you're not sitting there and having to make these decisions."
Hatch is vulnerable to a nomination challenge next year - a possible repeat of what happened in Utah in 2010, when Sen. Robert F. Bennett was defeated at the state convention, largely because of his vote for the bailout. Hatch is working to rehabilitate his reputation on fiscal issues, however, and CPAC gave him an opportunity to continue the effort.
Staff writers Aaron Blake, Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.