NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. - Nine potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference here over the last two days.
No one was received more enthusiastically than Sen. Rand Paul, who packed the ballroom with legions of young followers Friday afternoon. But Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Chris Christie also delivered impressive performances that improved their standing with a conservative movement that’s been disillusioned with each one during the last year.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry surprised with a rousing speech, while former Gov. Mike Huckabee fell flat.
Nearly all the hopefuls agree on the need for a new formula to win in 2016, but there were sharp clashes on the necessary ingredients to produce electoral success.
Here’s a rolling report card of their speeches.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Length: 18 minutes
Key Themes: With the hotel ballroom filled to capacity for the first time during this year’s conference, Paul issued a full-throated defense of liberty and the Constitution. He posited that the battle against an unrestrained, encroaching government holds profound implications for every aspect and slice of society. Sweeping surveillance programs, imprisonment without trial and a trove of executive orders are all examples of a government on the brink of tyranny, Paul claimed. This was a grandiose philosophical speech meant to amplify his unique place in the conservative movement.
3 Big Applause Lines: "Will you – America’s next generation of liberty lovers – will you stand and be heard?"
“I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business.”
“The Fourth Amendment is equally important as the Second Amendment and conservatives cannot forget this.”
The Joke: No joke.
Analysis: There’s a reason last year’s CPAC straw poll winner was slated to cap off Friday’s round of speakers. Paul packed the room like no other guest on the dais, lifting the audience to their feet more times than anyone else and even prompting cheers of “President Paul” from a smattering of students. Paul isn’t the smoothest public speaker – Rick Perry is more aw-shucks relatable while Marco Rubio is more naturally polished – and the Kentuckian can even appear awkward onstage for brief moments. But he owned the room, not because of his delivery but due to his message: a profound belief that the original interpretation of the Constitution must be defended. This crowd was with him from the start.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
Length: 17 minutes
Key Themes: Santorum reacted harshly to those Republicans who came before him and stressed the need to win. “They actually mean, ‘We have to lose,’” he responded. Put him in the Ted Cruz camp that doesn’t believe the GOP needs a rebrand, reset or recalibration. Those who say they want a party makeover just want to score points, Santorum claimed, and really mean they are willing to surrender conservative cultural and economic stands that are deemed unfashionable by the so-called mainstream. He also resurrected his focus on blue-collar, working-class people and advised Republicans to speak directly to them in plainspoken language, rather than in Washington rhetoric. Out: middle class. In: working Americans.
3 Big Applause Lines: “Why do we adopt class envy, leftist language that divides America against itself?”
“We should use the term ‘working Americans,’ because unlike them, we believe work is a good thing.”
“You may recall that I ran for president in 2012.”
The Joke: No joke.
Analysis: In addition to rebuking Republican calls to “just win,” Santorum attempted to frame himself beyond the cultural conservative brand that so often defines him. This was a clear attempt to assure conservatives that he’s an electable candidate – not just a fringe player who just so happened to be Mitt Romney’s runner-up. Santorum noted he carried 11 states in the 2012 GOP primary, more than any second-place finisher since Ronald Reagan in 1976. It was vintage, unscripted Santorum, who seemed to have already convinced himself he deserves another shot at the prize.
Length: 10 minutes
Key Themes: The 2008 Iowa caucus winner issued a swift laundry list of things he professes to know. That the IRS is a “criminal enterprise.” That religious liberty is under attack. That life begins at conception. He seemed to want to try to touch every base once, rather than diving deep into any one issue. In a nod to his evangelical grounding, sprinkled throughout were Biblical references and reverence to God.
3 Big Applause Lines: “I know that mother and fathers raise children better than government ever will.”
“I know that life begins at conception.”
“With all due respect to Hillary Clinton, it does make a difference.”
The Joke: “I know that the only time Vladimir Putin shivers is when he has his shirt off in a cold Russian winter.
Analysis: Huckabee got in his punch lines but the potpourri approach was underwhelming, especially after Perry’s crisp, peppy performance that kicked off Friday morning. Perhaps he got used to taking quick cues to hit hard commercial breaks on Fox News. Observers will read his reference to Hillary Clinton’s “indifference” on Benghazi as an indication he’s serious about running for president again, but many of the items he touched on were ideas he’s been talking about for years. Unsurprisingly, he went heavy with religious-based arguments, but didn’t show much growth beyond that issue set. One increasingly common suggestion he did reiterate: Republicans too often fight with themselves and should shelve the pettiness for the sake of the country.
Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas
Length: 11 minutes
Key Themes: Perry teed up his favorite red state vs. blue state argument, slamming New York and California as job killers and pumping up the record of his GOP colleagues up for re-election in 2014 like Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker. He also made an animated case for the federal government to understand its role, which he believes should be small and restricted. “Defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy and what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays,” Perry said to booming applause.
3 Big Applause Lines: “It’s time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.”
“We don’t have to accept recent history, we just need to change the presidency.”
“Get out of the health care business, get out of the education business . . .”
The Joke: “If you rent a U-Haul to move your company, it costs twice as much to go from San Francisco to Austin than the other way around, because you can’t find enough trucks to leave the Golden State.”
Analysis: Hand this to Perry: He made the best of possibly the worst CPAC timeslot of 9 a.m. Friday morning. Strutting onto the stage slapping his hands together with a bounce in his step, he came armed with a tight, punchy, fun speech that immediately captured the audience. This was Perry at his best -- a forceful, happy warrior. He was even better and more relatable than his home state rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. During his emphatic crescendo, Perry had the audience leaping to their feet and showering him with thunderclaps. Poor Sen. John Cornyn had to follow the Texas-sized reaction. “My friend Gov. Perry is a tough act to follow this morning,” Cornyn admitted. A repeat of this performance often enough could lead some skeptics to grant Perry a second look in 2016.Grade: A
Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La.
Length: 14 minutes
Key Themes: Jindal launched a direct assault on President Obama and his policies at home and abroad, lambasting him on everything from ineptitude on the Ukraine crisis to inaction on education reform and an assault on religious freedom. He held up his defense of the “Duck Dynasty” actors as an example of the intolerance of the left. But dubbing Obama a worse president than Jimmy Carter was his newsiest bite at the apple.
3 Big Applause Lines: “To President Carter, I want to issue a sincere apology. It is no longer fair to say he was the worst president of this great country in my lifetime. President Obama has proven me wrong.”
“Wouldn’t it be special . . . if we actually hired, fired, compensated our teachers based on how well teachers are doing rather than simply how long the teachers had been breathing in the classroom?”
“This country didn’t create religious liberty and freedom, religious liberty and freedom created this great country.”
The Joke: “The president graduated from one of the best schools in the country. If I were him, I’d consider suing Harvard Law School to get his money back.”
Analysis: This was the most recent iteration of a more aggressive Jindal, who is seeking some of the national oxygen that mostly gets sucked up by Christie, Cruz and the rest of the louder lot. He was disadvantaged by speaking after Christie -- the most highly anticipated speaker of the day -- but threw more punches than Ryan. The disconnect came when he asserted he was still wholly optimistic after delivering a speech loaded with blistering critiques about the country’s path.