Republicans harboring presidential ambitions face their first major casting call today on a stage where they must try to balance wooing the party’s base while not alienating independent voters.
It isn’t easy to do. Just ask 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who a year ago declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was “severely conservative.” President Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign used the phrase against the former Massachusetts governor repeatedly as it painted him as outside the mainstream.
“Folks that are looking at 2016 shouldn’t make the mistake of just talking to the people in the room,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser to Romney. “It’s a gathering of conservatives, but it’s watched by reporters and people beyond the room.”
The annual three-day CPAC gathering of the party’s dominant and sometimes divisive wing that’s aligned with the anti-tax Tea Party movement comes as Republican leaders are working to reshape their brand and become more competitive in state and national elections. A Republican National Committee panel is expected to unveil some recommended changes for the party, from technological to messaging, on March 18.
The juxtaposition of the two events highlights internal divisions over style and substance, including policy positions on same-sex marriage, immigration and tax and spending matters, and testing the degree to which the party base is willing to change.
Republicans often point to their control of 30 governorships -- the most since 2000 -- when challenged about the party’s future. Yet most of those state leaders weren’t invited to speak before the CPAC meeting -- including all of the governors who have said they will seek federal funds provided by Obama’s health-care law for expansion of Medicaid, which serves the poor. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives still assert that the health-care law should be repealed, as do many Tea Party activists.
Among those excluded are two governors considered potential 2016 presidential contenders -- Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. McDonnell, whose state is a brief drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from the CPAC gathering in Oxon Hill, Maryland, will speak in the convention hotel during a prayer breakfast sponsored by another group.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the Washington-based American Conservative Union, which sponsors the gathering, dismisses much of the blowback he has received in Republican circles over those not invited, saying in an interview that he chose “all-stars” from among the party’s governors.
Opening the limited-government conference today, Cardenas said Republicans must eliminate the “liberal nightmare” the nation faces. He outlined three requirements to reach that goal.
“First, the Republican Party needs to be a conservative party, with no apologies,” he said. “We must recruit candidates who not are not only principled conservatives, but articulate as well. If we don’t have candidates who can communicate these principles well, we’re going to lose election after election.”
Finally, Cardenas said, Republican must “embrace the changing demographics of America, not by diluting our principles, but by reaching out to all Americans.”
Romney, who will be making his first public speaking appearance since November’s election at the conference, is expected to focus more on saying his goodbyes than on defining a new path for his party.
Madden called Romney’s “severely conservative” phrase from a year ago an error because it distracted from the message he was trying to deliver on the campaign trail.
“It was a mistake because the outcome was that everyone focused on the semantics of a word,” Madden said. “That line didn’t say anything about where he stood on all these issues.”
Beyond the governors, the potential presidential candidates speaking at this year’s event include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.
Christie, 50, who has expressed interest in a White House bid, has angered some fellow Republicans in recent months by appearing to offer too much praise for Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy disaster response and for criticizing U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his Republican-controlled chamber for delays in approving federal storm assistance.
He was in the group’s favor as recently as June, when he spoke in suburban Chicago at a regional CPAC conference. Christie did best among Republicans in the still-unformed field of potential 2016 candidates when tested in a poll against Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, whom many in her party want to run.
Christie v. Clinton
Christie won support from 37 percent, compared with 45 percent for Clinton, in the survey of voters by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. The poll of 1,944 registered voters was conducted Feb. 27 through March 4 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
McDonnell, 58, upset some Republicans for sponsoring Virginia transportation legislation that increases taxes. He also negotiated an agreement with state Democrats to establish a panel to make recommendations about accepting Medicaid expansion funds from Washington.
The CPAC sessions may draw as many as 8,000 party activists. In 2010, the event offered Rubio, 41, a springboard when he delivered a well-received speech and was labeled a rising star of the Tea Party movement. He won his Senate seat later that year.
Rubio has been engaging in many of the same activities that Obama, as a senator from Illinois, undertook in preparing for his 2008 presidential bid. These include a foreign policy trip, frequent media appearances and an aggressive messaging operation that includes presidential campaign veterans.
Paul, 50, enters the convention with the most momentum among the 2016 prospects, following a 13-hour filibuster last week on the Senate floor against Obama’s nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director and the administration’s secret drone program.
Bush, 60, arrives following a week in which questions were raised about conflicting statements he has made on immigration, an issue closely watched by CPAC attendees.
The former Florida governor proposes in a new book that many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. be offered “permanent legal resident status” instead of citizenship. That’s counter to his past position, as well as that of a bipartisan group of senators -- including Rubio -- studying legislation that would allow a pathway to citizenship.
Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, is a leading voice in his party, especially on immigration and Hispanic politics. He clarified his position last week by saying he is open to allowing undocumented immigrants a route to citizenship, so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t penalize those who have followed the rules.
Jindal, 41, will arrive after a well-received speech to the Republican National Committee in January. Among the potential candidates, he has been among the most aggressive in pitching an anti-Washington message.
Santorum, 54, is a favorite of the CPAC crowd. After winning the 2012 Iowa caucuses, he became a major contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He is headed next month back to the state that traditionally hosts the first voting in the White House race to be the keynote speaker at a gathering of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Obama, 51, is certain to be the focus of attacks at the conference, though an improving jobs picture and soaring stock market leaves partisans with less material. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed yesterday up more than 10 percent so far this year, at 14,455.28, and a report last week by the U.S. Labor Department showed the unemployment rate in February dropped to 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008.
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