GOP Presidential Hopefuls Visit CPAC

For a few days, Florida is at the center of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. After Thursday night's debate, the Republican presidential candidates stopped by the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. For a few days, Florida is at the center of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Last night, a debate in Orlando; tomorrow, the Florida straw poll. And today, the Republican candidates were showcased at the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC. NPR's Greg Allen has the story from Orlando.

GREG ALLEN: Recent polls show Texas Governor Rick Perry is the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination, nationally and here in Florida. At last night's debate, he took his lumps from a few different opponents, trying to whittle away at that lead, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Romney seemed to score points with the audience when he blasted a law Perry signed in Texas giving in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants. In his speech today before a few thousand conservative Republicans, Romney picked up the theme once again.

MITT ROMNEY: My friend Governor Perry said that if you don't agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals, that you don't have a heart. I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ALLEN: It all has given Diane Warren second thoughts on the man who was her favorite candidate. Today, Warren, who's from Apopka, Florida, was still wearing a Perry sticker but with reservations.

DIANE WARREN: Well, you know, it was strange. He really had my attention, and last night, I thought he'd be a little bit more powerful. But when they got to talking about immigration, I need to check more on that.

ALLEN: At the debate, Perry seemed flat at times, unprepared for the attacks he took from Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. But in his prepared speech today at CPAC, he came out with guns blazing, saying the health care plan Romney adopted as Massachusetts governor hurt his state. In an apparent reference to Romney, Perry said values and vision matter more than style.

RICK PERRY: It's not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PERRY: We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for this country.

ALLEN: President Obama, Perry said, talks a good game but hasn't delivered.

PERRY: Matter of fact, remember President Clinton? Man, he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PERRY: ...and the next day be against ice cubes.

ALLEN: Tomorrow, many of those who attended the debate and CPAC will cast votes in a presidential straw poll. One of the voices who resonates with conservatives is Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She won the Iowa straw poll, but since then, her poll numbers have dwindled as Perry has picked up steam. Today, she worked to win back some of that support. Too many times in the past, she said Republicans have passed over the conservative candidate for someone considered more electable.

MICHELE BACHMANN: If there's ever been a year that we don't settle and sit next to the wall and go to the back of the bus, we conservatives have to say: No. This is our year. This is our time. And we're going to have our nominee.

ALLEN: Bachmann told Republicans that with President Obama's low approval ratings, a staunch constitutional conservative, as she describes herself, can get elected. But two Republicans from Port St. Lucie, Bill Knudsen and John Tubello, said they weren't so sure.

BILL KNUDSEN: I like Michele Bachmann. I don't know if she could get elected. I really like her. She's a smart woman.

JOHN TUBELLO: Make a great vice president.

KNUDSEN: But they've demonized her.

ALLEN: The Florida Republican Party is calling this three-day event at Orlando's convention center Presidency 5. Romney says he's not taking part in the straw poll. His name, however, will still be on the ballot. As to how meaningful the straw poll will be, party leaders point to history. In earlier versions - Presidency 1, 2 and 3 - the candidate who won the straw poll - Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole - went on to win their party's nomination. But as Bill Donegan, a Perry supporter from Orlando, says, that was then. Three years ago, at this stage in the nominating process, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee were the Republicans leading in Florida.

BILL DONEGAN: McCain was a distant third. Who got nominated? McCain. Now, you've got Facebook, Twitter, it's a whole new dynamics. So the straw polls, I'll tell you this. I would rather win it than lose it.

ALLEN: Florida Republicans hope tomorrow's straw poll will boost the state's role in selecting the party nominee. And they're not done yet. They're working on scheduling a date for an early primary that they hope will make Florida the fifth state to vote, right after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Greg Allen, NPR news, Orlando.

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