'Topsy-Turvy' GOP Race Heads to CPAC

Presidential candidates again make their pitch to the base.

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It might have been a coronation ceremony, or at least a collective understanding of the importance of compromise. But thanks to Tuesday night's GOP presidential primary victories by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other GOP rivals, the folks attending the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday will be treated to a pre-Valentine's Day, old-fashioned wooing. That's right, wooing.

Santorum, Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are all slated to address the CPAC attendees Friday and each campaign is desperate to win over the heart of the Republican Party. Texas Rep. Ron Paul declined to attend the event.

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"I would have said that the day of the convention deciding the nomination was over and was settled with the rise of the primary. I'm not sure that's the case in 2012," said Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Reed, speaking on a panel about the 2012 political landscape, said he's worked on every presidential campaign since 1980 and called this the "most wide-open, the most fluid, the most topsy-turvy."

"I mean this about this for a minute - there have been eight contests so far and the front-runner has won three of them; and you've had three of them," he said.

Judging from how the audience in the conference's main ballroom reacted to the different speakers Thursday, there's a hunger to hear more than just economic messaging. In part, this has been fueled by recent controversial moves by the Obama administration on areas such as the availability of contraceptives for those receiving health insurance from employment by religious institutions.

It's a move all the GOP presidential candidates have condemned, but it's sparked the re-emergence of social issues on the campaign trail. So has the recent success of Santorum, who has targeted evangelical conservatives as his base of support ever since he began campaigning in Iowa.

After winning a narrow and belatedly announced victory there, he struggled for oxygen – and momentum – as the race movedthrough New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. But he again found success in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, thanks to his religious convictions and willingness to make it a top issue while campaigning. Romney, meanwhile, has tried to shy away from social issues because of his past more moderate views and with an eye on the general election where he fears turning off independent voters.

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Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the conservative blog RedState.com, said the Republican nominee should have more to campaign on than just the economy.

"There needs to be something more to it; you have to have more of an agenda," he said during the panel discussion. "I hate to be pessimistic about an election we should win, but it seems like we are setting ourselves up to lose if the economy improves."

Ralph Hallow, chief political writer for the Washington Times, said none of the GOP presidential candidates have elicited the enthusiasm needed to attract new voters in November.

"It's the same story it seems to me that the Republican Party has had every time," he said. "And I hope this is not taken as a criticism of any of the candidates in the Republican Party, but every time the Republican Party puts up a candidate who is not conservative, it has lost the election."

With a lull in the primary action until the end of the month, when Arizona and Michigan weigh in, and a lack of scheduled debates as well, the speeches each candidate gives on Friday – and more importantly how they are received – have the potential to be game-changers. But the unanswered question remains – is the GOP ready to go steady?

Email: rmetzler@usnews.com

Twitter: @rebekahmetzler

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