CPAC 2012: A Struggle for the GOP’s Soul after the Post-Reagan Era

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Photo: Gina Yarbrough/San Diego County News

By Danny R. Johnson

WASHINGTON – Wrapped in Ronald Reagan’s genial embrace, organizers of the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which kicked off Thursday and will last until Saturday, are not having much success in trying to corral the four remaining Republican contenders for the Republican presidential nomination to all get along.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum supporters were out in full force at the CPAC conference rallying the faithful to vote for their respective candidate in Saturday’s straw poll. Ron Paul has won the poll for the last two years, but he may have his work cut out for him since Santorum won the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri caucuses last week.

Santorum wasted no time in blasting Romney as “ineffective and out-of-touch with the conservative principles which Reagan fought for,” he stated in his victory speech earlier in the week. Romney shot back with a rapid response stating that “Santorum is another example of a worn out Washington insider who has milked the system with millions in earmarks, and now wants to claim that he is conservative.” Newt says he is in it for the long haul and Paul stated “let’s ride this thing all the way to Tampa!”

Those discordant strains could be heard beneath the manufactured harmony of this carefully scripted CPAC event. Whether or not Romney is the perceived Republican nominee who says he can beat President Barack Obama in November, the race to succeed the President – and the struggle for the Republican Party’s soul—has already begun. Says former President George W. Bush campaign director Ed Rollins: “By the end of the Republican convention in August, the camps will be divided. There is no question that we are going through a tough primary season that will make the Republican race in 2007-2008 look tame. The whole direction of the Party, post the Reagan era, is up for grabs.”

Conservative Bulwarks Hammers The President

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Photo: Gina Yarbrough/San Diego County News

Candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination are delivering speeches at the annual event. Big conservative names like U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mitch McConnel (R- KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are also taking part in the conservative gathering. Sarah Palin will deliver the keynote address at CPAC on Saturday night.

Rubio’s speech hit all of the right notes for Republicans. He mocked Obama for using a teleprompter. He dissed his Senate colleagues, especially on the left, saying he wonders how some of them got there. And more than anything, the speech called “Is America Still an Exceptional Nation?” — the answer was yes — and discussed the country’s military and moral superiority.

While Rubio was delivering his speech, supporters of Ron Paul were passing out flyers outlining Rubio’s “moderate and often contradicting conservative credentials.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), free from the constraints of running for president, opened her speech with a joke.

“Running for President of the United States is really one series of humiliations after another, but it’s also a very educational experience,” she said.

“I know where John Wayne was born.”

“I know the day Elvis Presley was born.”

“Thirdly, I learned never forget the three things that you learn,” she said.

She focused the entire rest of her speech on foreign policy. She acknowledged that the death of Osama Bin Laden in a mission ordered by President Barack Obama and the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after the Libyan uprising (backed by NATO air forces) were “tactical successes.” However, she claimed that the president’s foreign policy had made the Middle East “a mess.” She cast the Arab Spring in a dark light, bemoaning how leaders in Tunisia and Egypt were deposed.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Photo: Gina Yarbrough/San Diego County News

House Speaker John Boehner laid out his ideas on Thursday for a better future, one where Republicans hold the presidency and the senate, the tax code is reformed and the country “now operated on Paul Ryan’s budget.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has said the “single most important thing” to achieve is for President Barack Obama to be a one-term president, attacked the Obama administration’s handling of the economy at his speech at CPAC Thursday.

“Last week’s jobs report happened in spite of his policies, not because of them,” claimed McConnell, talking about the report that showed an increase of 243,000 jobs. “If I were President Obama, I’d keep the champagne on ice. This is not an economy to be proud of.”

A senior campaign adviser to Santorum told San Diego County News that the much anticipated speech on Friday by Santorum to the CPAC crowd will highlight his conservative credentials and will press the case why Romney should not be the nominee without actually mentioning his name. Stay tune – it’s getting hot in DC!

Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ National News Correspondent.

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