“Now, I’m not one who questions the existence of the president’s birth certificate,” Pawlenty, of Minnesota, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “But when you listen to his policies, don’t you at least wonder what planet he’s from?”
Romney, of Massachusetts, told his audience that he wondered how Obama “went from change you can believe in, to can you believe this change?”
Pawlenty’s critique of Obama included a call for repeal of the health-care overhaul the president pushed into law last year. Romney, who during his 2003-2007 gubernatorial term spearheaded enactment of a state law comparable to the national one, didn’t mention that issue.
Unlike many of the other roughly dozen prospective presidential contenders addressing the conference -- which began Feb. 10 and attracted more than 10,000 people -- Pawlenty, 50, and Romney, 63, are actively competing for donors and building staff in the states with early nominating races next year.
In their conference appearances, the two former governors were seeking to win over skeptical Tea Party activists whose energy spurred Republican gains in November’s midterm elections. Many of these activists prefer party insurgents such as Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee who didn’t attend the conference, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who spoke at the gathering yesterday.
“Romney has a base here, but it’s a thin base,” said David Keene, former president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference. “He’s trying to augment that.”
Keene judged that Pawlenty was making some inroads. “If there were a most-improved candidate, it would be Pawlenty,” he said.
Prospective candidates who spoke on Feb. 10 included Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. And billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump created a buzz when he told the conference he might enter the race. “I will decide by June whether I will become” a candidate, he said.
Among other potential Republican White House contenders, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels addressed the conference’s dinner yesterday and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour speaks to today’s concluding session.
Daniels avoided direct swipes at Obama while highlighting his fiscal record in Indiana and casting the nation’s burgeoning national debt as a national security dilemma.
“We face an enemy lethal to freedom,” he said. “It is the new ‘Red Menace,’ this time consisting of ink.” He cautioned that “if our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won’t have much strength and ultimately we won’t have much peace.”
Remedies he proposed included revising the tax system so that it “looks like someone designed it on purpose.” And in calling for a reduction of the government’s regulatory authority, he suggested the Environmental Protection Agency should be renamed the “Employment Prevention Agency.”
Romney and Pawlenty offered stump-like speeches that didn’t shy from directly assailing Obama.
Pawlenty began his remarks with his own version of a phrase Obama used in the 2008 campaign, asking his listeners “are you fired up and ready to take this country back?” They responded with shouts of “yes.”
He said the country needs “more common sense and less Obama nonsense.”
Focusing on the top priorities of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, Pawlenty said Republicans should reject, as part of a push to reign in “reckless” government spending, a soon-to-come administration request for an increase in the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit.
In an appeal to social conservatives, he said, “We, as a nation, must move towards God, not away from Him,” he said.
Romney concentrated on Obama’s economic record, saying the president failed in his response to America’s “job crisis” during his first two years in office. Romney called the nation’s unemployment rate, which stood at 9 percent in January, a “moral tragedy.”
Romney touted the business experience he gained as co- founder of the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC. “I wouldn’t be asking Timothy Geithner how the economy works or Larry Summers how to start a business. I know,” Romney said.
Geithner serves as Obama’s treasury secretary; Summers recently stepped down as director of the administration’s National Economic Council.
Romney’s avoidance of the health-care issue left some of his own supporters grumbling. Christopher Kniesler, a political consultant from New Jersey who wore a Romney sticker, said after the speech that he was heading to talk with Romney’s advisers about the matter.
Romney “upped his game,” and “is 10 times more polished” than when he ran for president four years ago, said Kniesler. Still, referring to health care, he said, “I would love to see him take that issue right on in his stump speech. It has to happen. That’s going to be the biggest criticism hanging around his head.”
Romney has faced increased pressure over the issue amid court rulings in Florida and Virginia finding unconstitutional the law’s requirement that individuals carry health insurance. The so-called individual mandate is also at the heart of Romney’s 2006 Massachusetts health law.
Attacks on the national law Republicans have dubbed “Obamacare” were mainstays in the speeches by others. “The individual mandate in Obamacare is a page right out of the Jimmy Carter playbook,” Pawlenty said.
For Pawlenty, the looming challenge is to increase his national profile. “I recognize his name,” said Peter Evans, an editor of the Politics and Prayer website attending the conference. “I believe he’s a governor somewhere.”
A Real Clear Politics average of polls of the potential 2012 Republican candidates has Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who didn’t attend the conference, in a virtual tie for first place, each with almost 19 percent, followed by Palin, with 16.4 percent. Pawlenty’s support was 4.1 percnet.
Palin and Huckabee cited scheduling conflicts as their reason for skipping the conference. A Palin impersonator was surrounded by dozens of attendees yesterday as she walked through the hotel where the conference is being held.
Paul, who won the straw poll of potential candidates at last year’s conference, got a boisterous reception for his speech. Paul attracted a following among some young voters in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2008.
“I’m glad to see the revolution is continuing,” he said to loud cheers.
Activists heckled Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, when he was asked at a panel yesterday about his vote in 2008 for the government financial rescue package aimed at stabilizing the economy.
“I probably made a mistake” voting for it, Hatch said, among hoots from some in the crowd. He added that at the time, it appeared the economy badly needed the injection of funds provided by the Troubled Asset Relief Program and that it was the Republican administration of President George W. Bush that was proposing it.
“All I can say is, there aren’t many people who will say I’m sorry. I’m one who will,” Hatch said.
Hatch is up for re-election next year and may face an insurgent challenge in the primary. Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who won his seat in November after Tea Party activists blocked the re-nomination of Republican incumbent Robert Bennett earlier in the year, said yesterday he wouldn’t endorse Hatch in next year’s primary.
Hatch promised activists that he would take a more fiscally conservative position for the remainer of his term. “I’m prepared to be the most hated man in this Godforsaken city in order to save this country,” he said.