CPAC Conference A Stage For Presidential Contenders

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference began Thursday in Washington, D.C. Several former presidential candidates were among the speakers. Host Audie Cornish talks with Ari Shapiro, who was at the conference.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Thousands of conservative leaders from around the country are in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The meeting has a special fervor this year because it comes in the middle of the Republican presidential primary.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spent the day at the conference and joins me now in the studio. Welcome, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So, who are the key speakers this year and what do they say? What does this lineup say about the Republican Party?

SHAPIRO: You know, Audie, at times, the entire presidential race has felt a little bit like a reality TV show, and I'm not sure know how much reality programming you watch, but generally at the end of a season, there tends to be an episode where everybody who was kicked off the show comes back for a special reunion.

CORNISH: For a reunion show, yes.

SHAPIRO: That was sort of today. So we had Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry. All of them have dropped out of the race. They were all back speaking today. Tomorrow is going to be the current contestants with - excuse me - Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and, of course, Mitt Romney. Ron Paul is not speaking. His son, Rand Paul, the senator, spoke today.

But, you know, the theme of this last year has been kind of the tension between Romney and everybody else, the not Romneys. That really came out today with Texas Governor Rick Perry's speech. He has endorsed Newt Gingrich. And without mentioning either Romney or Gingrich by name today, he said: We do the American people no great service if we replace the current embodiment of big government with a lukewarm version of the same - clearly referring to Romney there. But the one theme that every speaker returned to, without exception today, was just their shared desire to defeat President Obama in November.

CORNISH: So what can you tell us about the lines of attack that they were using against this administration?

SHAPIRO: You know, I was surprised at how many of the speakers acknowledged a really good Obama track record. For example, Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, brought up hiring numbers from last Friday that showed that we're now at the lowest unemployment level in three years, 8.3 percent. McConnell said: If I were the president, I would keep the champagne on ice.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Look, let's face it. The only reason we're getting any positive economic news at all more than three years after this presidency began is because the American people put a restraining order on him and Pelosi in November of 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: And then, after McConnell, Michele Bachmann came out and talked about President Obama's foreign record. She said: We know that the president is going to brag about killing Osama bin Laden. He's going to brag about the downfall of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But she said that's nothing to brag about compared with his other failures on the international stage.

To me, it sounds like the Republicans are not just attacking President Obama. They are trying to preemptively rebut arguments that they know he will make about his accomplishments from the last three years on the domestic and international fronts.

CORNISH: Now, one highlight about CPAC each year is the straw poll, which takes place on Saturday. What role is it going to play this late in the primary season?

SHAPIRO: It's another test of this Romney versus not Romney dynamic. Every time Romney looks like he has gotten people to consolidate behind him - think about votes in New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada this year - there seems to be a shift in the other direction. This week, it was Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, all of which went for Rick Santorum. So, Santorum is going to try to solidify the non-Romney vote.

Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, is going to try to argue that he is the most conservative alternative to Romney, even after Santorum's sweep this week.

CORNISH: So definitely helping in the momentum department.

SHAPIRO: Exactly.

CORNISH: So any surprises, any interesting characters you ran across during your day at CPAC?

SHAPIRO: You know, Audie, I'm glad you asked...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: ...because, as it happens, I have brought you a gift.

CORNISH: OK.

SHAPIRO: And it was given to me by a woman named Elisa Shakespeare. That's her real name, Shakespeare. And I think it's best if I just let her describe it.

ELISA SHAKESPEARE: We are passing out government cluster fudge. It's a line of delicious candy, and it actually is made - and kind of gooey. It's wrapped in red tape. We also sell chocolate bags of lies, which are easier to swallow than the ones you pay your politicians to tell you. We have bags of broken promises and a very stimulating program called cash for clusters, where you're able to send in your worn, tired out dollar bills, and we'll send you candy.

SHAPIRO: So, Audie, here's your very own bag - straight from CPAC - of government cluster fudge.

CORNISH: Than you so much.

SHAPIRO: I hope you enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I cannot imagine a better gift for a journalist with Valentine's coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: No problem, Audie.

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