GOP Presidential Hopefuls Line Up At CPAC

Many of the likely contenders for the GOP nomination for president next year are lining up to address the Conservative Political Action Conference. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke Friday; former House Speaker Newt Gingich and Representative Michele Bachmann spoke Thursday. Host Robert Siegel speaks to NPR political correspondent Don Gonyea, who listened in and spoke to conservative activists.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Also in Washington this week, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. It has been a fixture on the political calendar for a generation and a touchstone for presidential candidates dating back to Ronald Reagan.

Well, today, the thousands of activists in attendance got serious about auditioning some potential Republican nominees to take on President Obama in 2012. NPR's Don Gonyea was there, and he joins us now to talk about it.

And Don, I guess the best-known of the candidates on the program today was Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, who ran in 2008, widely expected to run again. Here is a little bit of what he had to say going after President Obama's economic policies.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): The right answer isn't to believe in European solutions. The right answer is to believe in America, to believe in free enterprise, capitalism, limited government, federalism, to believe in the Constitution as it was written and intended by the founders. That's the right answer.

(Soundbite of applause)

DON GONYEA: Well Robert, in listening to Mitt Romney there, you'll hear his basic theme; it's the big government reaching beyond its powers. You can also hear Romney reaching out himself to the Tea Party in that piece of tape.

He's not the Tea Party's natural favorite. Some of his conservative credentials are suspect among Tea Partiers. It's that Massachusetts health care program from when he was governor. And it's not unlike the problem he had when he ran four years ago, when social conservatives didn't trust him on the abortion issue.

Ultimately, though, Romney is still seen as a relative moderate when you look at this whole potential field. His speech was full of jokes. I have to tell you, one of the biggest laughs he got, though, was when he said: If I decide to run for president...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: The room kind of erupted in knowing laughter.

SIEGEL: Well, at least he came out swinging against Europe. I heard that there.

Another former governor in the Republican firmament is Tim Pawlenty, who retired this winter after two terms as governor of Minnesota. He, too, has been seen as something of a centrist in another state that usually votes Democratic. And he seemed eager, I gather, to show his conservatism today, going after President Obama's both domestic and foreign policies.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Republican Governor, Minnesota): We undermine Israel, the U.K., Poland, Czech Republic, Colombia, amongst other of our friends. Meanwhile, we appease and accommodate Iran, Russia, adversaries in the Middle East, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. President, with bullies, might makes right.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Here's what's interesting: Through the first half of this conference, the last two days, if you only listened to the speeches, you would hardly know there was anything going on in Egypt this week. Speakers have almost completely stayed away from that topic.

And with Pawlenty right there, we saw this former governor talking about the U.S. and its alliances around the world and having a perfect opening to talk about Egypt or Hosni Mubarak or 30 years of U.S. friendship or the protesters in the streets, and he did not.

SIEGEL: But the next speaker, I gather, did talk about Egypt: Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas who ran in 2008 and may run again in 2012. He wanted to talk about Egypt as an example of how foreign involvement creates problems.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Let me tell you, fiscal conservatives should look at this carefully. How much did we invest in that dictator over the past 30 years: $70 billion we invested in Egypt.

(Soundbite of boos)

Rep. PAUL: And guess what? The government is crumbling, and the people are upset not only with their government, but they're upset with us for propping up that puppet dictator for all those years.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: So Ron Paul felt no need to tiptoe around this topic. He saw his chance to attack the foreign commitments he's always been against, all over the world: foreign aid, military aid, wars overseas and the like. And he had a lot of support in the hall.

SIEGEL: In fact, a lot of Ron Paul people rose up last night when another speaker, New York businessman Donald Trump, said he didn't think Ron Paul could get elected.

GONYEA: Exactly. There were a lot boos, catcalls. Ron Paul always gets a good reception at CPAC. He packs the place with college kids. This place is crawling with college kids this week. A lot of them like Ron Paul.

Though I have to tell you, Ron Paul said nothing at all today in his speech about running for president in 2012. He is, of course, 75 years old.

SIEGEL: Thank you. NPR's Don Gonyea, reporting on CPAC, the big Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this week.

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