The wide-open, potentially divisive nature of the 2016 Republican presidential race is on full display this week on a ballroom stage outside Washington.
Five potential candidates wooed the party’s base yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and four more did so today. None is an obvious favorite in the party’s early race for the nomination, a rare case for Republicans.
A year from now, those who push forward in the White House contest will be traveling to early primary states to compete for attention, campaign leadership and money. For now, they’re courting the party’s base and fleshing out their messages.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who drew the largest crowd of any of the potential candidates appearing at the convention of party activists in Oxon Hill, Maryland, said in his speech today that “lovers of liberty” can’t always walk in step with the Republican Party.
“It isn’t good enough to pick the lesser of two evils,” Paul also said. “We must elect men and women of principle and conviction and action who will lead us back to greatness.”
Other possible contenders who spoke today were former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Governor Rick Perry. The convention heard yesterday from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee.
Paul, 51, a favorite of Tea Party activists, has bucked party orthodoxy while mulling a White House bid. He’s trying to build on the network of supporters that his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, amassed during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, while arguing that Republicans need to do more to reach out to blacks and other demographic groups that have traditionally shied away from the party.
Freedom is under assault by the federal government and everyone must fight to protect the less powerful, Paul said. “You can be a minority by the color of your skin, or the shade of your ideology,” he said.
Without naming Christie, Santorum offered a rebuttal to the New Jersey governor, who argued yesterday that Republicans need to figure out a way to win, if they want to govern again.
“They actually mean we have to lose,” Santorum said. “We have to lose those currently unfashionable stances on cultural and limited-government issues that have been proven over time to give Americans the best chance for a healthy, happy life.”
Santorum reminded the audience he won 11 states in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential primary bid.
“That’s more states than any second-place finisher since a guy who finished second back in 1976 named Reagan,” he said.
Perry, in his address, also placed a heavy emphasis on limited government.
“Our country is in peril, our debt is at a record amount, this economic recovery is absolutely stagnant, our place in the world is weakened,” he said. “So I have a simple solution: It’s time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.”
Perry, 64, failed badly in a 2012 bid for the party’s nomination that’s best remembered for his disparaging comments about then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and debate performances even he rated as subpar.
Still, the Texas governor received some of the strongest applause among potential candidates. As he pitched his record as governor, Perry said the national political debate is one between “big government, protectionist nanny state” and “the limited-government, unsubsidized freedom state.”
Perry’s call for a shrinking role for the federal government resonated with the audience at the event sponsored by the American Conservative Union, a Washington-based group that promotes smaller government.
“Nowhere does the Constitution say that we should federalize classrooms,” he said. “Nowhere does it give federal officials primary responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm, the water we drink, and nowhere does it say Congress has the right to federalize health care.”
The common wisdom in presidential politics has been that Democrats tend to fall in love with newcomers to the national stage, while Republicans fall in line behind seasoned contenders. That could get reversed in 2016 if Hillary Clinton enters the Democratic race, with polls showing she’d be the strong favorite for her party’s nod.
Republicans, by contrast, don’t yet have the type of clear front-runner that has marked most of their races over the last 50 years.
In his address today, Huckabee criticized comments Clinton made when she testified before Congress about her then-role as secretary of state during a 2012 terrorist attack that left four Americans dead in Libya.
In the hearings, Republicans pressed her on incorrect talking points the administration used in the weeks after the attack, prompting her to say at one point, “What difference does it make?” whether it was a planned terrorist attack or a spontaneous incident.
“With all due respect to Hillary Clinton, it does make a difference why they died,” Huckabee said.
After winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Huckabee, 58, saw his presidential aspirations fizzle that year. He went on to become the host of a radio talk show and a Fox News program.
He could be a strong contender in a second White House bid, especially in Iowa, where he remains popular. He’s headed next month to the state that traditionally hosts the first vote in the White House race to be the keynote speaker at a gathering of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Christie, 51, told his audience yesterday that, in the wake of the Republican losses to Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, “We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for and not what we’re against.”
He also said: “Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that’s what we have to stand up for.”
For Christie, who has often talked about his ability to win over independent voters and some Democrats, the event offered a chance to see whether he could energize the activist segment of his party that dominates the nomination process.
He received a standing ovation as he was about to start his address. The applause then ranged from polite to strong during his 15-minute speech, during which he made no mention of the furor that has surrounded politically motivated bridge traffic jams created by his aides in September.
A year ago, Christie was excluded from the CPAC gathering after he angered Tea Party activists for being among Republican governors who said they’d seek federal funds provided by the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid, which serves the poor.
Cruz, in his remarks, stressed the need for Republicans to differentiate themselves from Democrats and ignore the advice of “D.C. consultants” who say “to not rock the boat.”
He pointed to the failed Republican presidential campaigns of former Senator Bob Dole in 1996, Senator John McCain of Arizona in 2008 and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012 as examples not to follow.
“Those are good men, they’re decent men, but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate,” he said.
Cruz, 43, also said the U.S. should “abolish” the Internal Revenue Service, “audit the Federal Reserve,” and “repeal every single word” of Obama’s health-care law.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at Mark McQuillan, Don Frederick