(Updates with Rubio comments starting in 24th paragraph.)
By John McCormick
March 6 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie challenged his fellow Republicans to put forward more policy positions to solve the nation’s ills as he courted a constituency crucial to a potential presidential bid.
“We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for and not what we’re against,” he said today at one of the highest-profile gatherings of party activists. “Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that’s what we have to stand up for.”
Christie is among the prospective Republican presidential candidates wooing the party’s base today and tomorrow at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland. The gathering is sponsored by the American Conservative Union, a Washington-based group that promotes smaller government.
The event provided a test for Christie, who has often talked about his ability to win over independent voters and some Democrats. The convention offered him a chance to see whether he could energize the activist segment of the Republican Party that dominates the presidential-nomination process.
Christie, who has faced an uproar at home over politically motivated lane closures in September at the George Washington Bridge, received a standing ovation as he was about to start his address. The applause ranged from polite to strong during his 15-minute speech.
“He kind of electrified the crowd,” said attendee Mike Frank, of Alexandria, Virginia. “He says that he gets things done. We need people who are doers.”
A year ago, Christie wasn’t even invited after he angered limited-government voters for being among the Republican governors who said they’d seek federal funds provided by the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid, the health-insurance program for lower-income Americans.
“He was vigorous and strong, and I like that he emphasized what Republicans should stand for,” said attendee Chandra Menon, a resident of the Bronx, New York. “I totally agree. There’s too much wallowing in negatives by the party.”
Christie hit several themes popular with the crowd, including a defense of the Koch brothers. The billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch are supporters of the small-government Tea Party movement and have come under increasing attacks from Democrats as they have helped fund ad campaigns aimed at promoting the Republican bid for a Senate majority.
“We need to talk about the fact that we are for a free-market society that allows your effort and ingenuity to determine your success, not the cold, hard hand of the government,” Christie said.
As he stressed his opposition to abortion rights, Christie argued that Democrats are a less-welcoming party to differing views on that issue.
“They’re the party of intolerance, not us,” he said.
In calling for a stronger national defense, he said, “We need to make sure that we say we are for America being a leader in the world.”
Christie also urged greater party unity. “We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” he said. “Let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”
Christie, 51, is seeking to change the conversation around him from one focused on the furor over the traffic jams last year in Fort Lee, New Jersey, that were created by his administration in an apparent act of political retribution. He made no mention of the controversy in his address.
He’s traveling nationwide to raise millions of dollars as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, an assignment that -- before news of his office’s role in the bridge lane closures erupted -- his allies saw as helping boost his national standing. Throughout his remarks, he pitched Republican governors as better problem-solvers than Washington lawmakers.
The Republican Party’s full political spectrum is on display at the conference, from Christie to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a favorite of the Tea Party wing.
In his address earlier today, Cruz pointed to the failed Republican presidential campaigns of Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
“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 also said the U.S. should “abolish” the Internal Revenue Service, “audit the Federal Reserve” and “repeal every single word” of President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
Speaking later to reporters, Cruz said he isn’t concerned about the strength of a potential Democratic presidential bid in 2016 by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I’m less concerned about Hillary Clinton than I am about the direction this country is going,” he said. “We can’t afford eight more years of this. Hillary Clinton would continue the failed Obama economic agenda, and there comes a point where you can’t turn this country around.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, delivered a speech focused on foreign policy and U.S. global leadership.
“There is only one nation on Earth capable of bringing together and rallying the free people” of the world, Rubio said. “The United Nations cannot do this. In fact, they cannot do anything.”
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, told the convention that the media has made too much of the “civil war” between the Tea Party and more traditional supporters of the Republican Party.
‘Party of Ideas’
“I’m Irish, that’s my idea of a family reunion,” Ryan said. “I don’t see this great divide in our party. What I see is a vibrant debate.”
Ryan also said Republicans need to put forward new ideas to solve problems.
“Let the other party be the party of personalities,” he said. “We will be the party of ideas.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces a tough re-election bid this year in Kentucky, came on stage carrying a musket that he handed to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who isn’t running for re-election. It was part of an award for Coburn from the National Rifle Association.
“If I’m given the opportunity to lead the U.S. Senate next year, I won’t let you down,” McConnell said. “I will lead with integrity, we will fight with tooth and nail for conservative reforms that put this country back on track, we’ll debate our ideas openly. We will vote without fear and we will govern with the understanding that the future of this country depends upon our success.”
Democrats sought to paint the gathering as illustrating the extremism that represents the Republican message heading into this year’s midterm elections.
“The choice voters will face in November couldn’t be clearer, between Democrats who are fighting for opportunity for everyone, not just opportunity for a few, and Republicans who put courtship of the far-right above all,” the Democratic National Committee and other party organizations said in a joint memo released today.