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Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds


One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continued his ascension to the top ranks of the Republican field with a well-received speech that focused in part on a critique of Obama’s handling of the threat from the Islamic State. "We need a president, a leader, who will stand up and say we will take the fight to them and not wait until they bring the fight to American soil for our children and our grandchildren,” he said.

Walker then went on to remind the CPAC audience of his efforts to confront labor unions in Wisconsin, a battle that won him national attention and glowing reviews from conservative activists.

"I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists [does] not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil, but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world," said Walker. "We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

That last bit got Walker into hot water when Democrats accused him of wrongly comparing union workers to terrorists. A Walker spokeswoman said the governor was talking about his strength and leadership and in no way was comparing union activists with Islamic State terrorists.

Walker remains popular with conservatives, but has had some stumbles of late that suggest he is still adjusting to the national spotlight.

Bush faces conservative skeptics

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has plenty of conservative skeptics who question his commitment to their principles. Bush did not give a prepared speech, but he answered questions for 20 minutes from Fox News show host Sean Hannity, who was as much a celebrity at the conference as any of the politicians.

Bush sought to assuage conservatives by insisting he governed Florida as a principled conservative reformer and would bring that same philosophy with him should he decide to run for president.

Bush also challenged the conservative audience, however, to reach out to minority voters, especially Hispanic-Americans. "If we share our enthusiasm and love for our country and belief in our philosophy," he said, "we will be able to get Latinos and young people and other people that you need to win to get 50" percent of the vote.

Another likely contender for 2016 was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who got a rousing reception. His Libertarian views are very popular at CPAC and he didn’t disappoint this year.

Paul has come under fire for foreign policy views, though, especially in light of the focus on countering the Islamic State, something all the candidates emphasized in their remarks.

Paul is not a believer in extended U.S. military involvement overseas in light of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he sought to strike a balance in how he would handle the ISIL threat.

"We must protect ourselves from jihadists without losing who we are in the process. We should promote stability, not chaos," he said. Later, he added, "I envision an America with a national defense unparalleled, undefeatable and unencumbered by nation building."

Targeting Obama’s immigration moves

Another crowd favorite was Texas Senator Ted Cruz. He reminded the audience that he is one conservative willing to take action in the Senate to try to stop the president executive actions on immigration.

"If a candidate says they oppose President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional executive amnesty, terrific. [But] when have you stood up and fought against it?" he asked. Cruz is hoping conservatives will buy his argument that he is more than talk when it comes to confronting Obama and congressional Democrats.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hoped his appearance at CPAC would lead to a surge in the polls. Christie has been criticized for his aggressive manner, but defended his “New Jersey style” approach to confrontation politics as a necessary political tool. “I will run a hard, fighting campaign where I will fight for the hard working taxpayers of this country and I’ll take my chances on me. I’ve done pretty well so far.”

CPAC does involve retail campaigning with White House hopefuls actively courting conservative activists from around the country. After voting in the CPAC straw poll or test vote of potential contenders, Rene Cannon, decked out in her Ted Cruz T-shirt, left little doubt who she was supporting. “Ted Cruz. I think it is kind of obvious. I think he’s principled. I think he is a man of conviction.”

Grassroots activists in action

Further down the hall just outside the main ballroom, airline pilot and military veteran Chris Hill of Kentucky said he had also zeroed in on a presidential candidate at CPAC-himself. Hill said he was running a grass roots campaign and freely doing interviews with anyone who wondered by. Most of the interviewers began by asking him who he was and how to spell his name.

Hill was not deterred. “The American people are behind us. The pundits may not believe in us yet, but the American people believe in us because they’ve told me that for the last couple of years.” Hill has, shall we say, an uphill campaign, but he was surrounded by lots of encouraging conservative colleagues who wished him well.

Apart from the endless speeches and back hall campaigning, CPAC serves another important purpose, according to the News Director for the Tea Party News Network, Scottie Nell Hughes.

Hughes said the annual conference provides an opportunity for conservative bonding. “We need to come in and get beefed up and say, yes, you are not alone in this world being conservative. So from that perspective yes, from a morale perspective, you’ve got to have these conferences because we get beat down in the world so much. You come here and you are like, OK, I am ready to fight.”

The CPAC conference comes early in the presidential election cycle, but it can serve as an important indicator of conservative enthusiasm for the Republican contenders, said Dan Balz, a longtime political reporter for The Washington Post who has attended many past conferences.

"What happens here goes well beyond these corridors and a lot of people will be watching," Balz said. "So I think all of the people who are coming who have their eye on running for president know they want to do well here."

The campaign is in its early stages and no one has yet to officially announce. It’s clear from this year’s CPAC meeting, though, that the upcoming battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination will be one of the most unpredictable and hard-fought Republican primaries in decades.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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