At Conference, Conservatives Assail Budget Plan

While President Obama was unveiling his budget at the White House Thursday, thousands of activists were meeting across town at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As the president unveiled his budget at the White House, thousands of activists were meeting across town at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: As Republicans on Capitol Hill attacked the president's budget yesterday, the keynote speaker at CPAC, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was attacking the stimulus bill, or what he called the $787 billion monstrosity.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): This budget-buster did not have a single Republican vote in the House, and you want to know why? Six hundred million dollars to buy green cars for bureaucrats; $50 million to subsidize more obscene art through the NEA; $400 billion to study sexual transmitted diseases. This is the type of spending that's supposed to demonstrate the new era of responsibility that President Obama promised?

You know, my seven-year-old daughter showed more restraint when she put together her Christmas list for Santa last Christmas.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Republicans are out of power and the new Democratic president has sky-high approval ratings, but none of that dampened the spirits of David Keene, the president of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the CPAC event. Indeed, Keene says, conservatives are feeling liberated because George W. Bush, who many on the right felt undermined their cause, is out of office.

Mr. DAVID KEENE (President, American Conservative Union): One of the reasons for the enthusiasm here is that now they think they've got a chance to get that party that they worked for, to get its act back together. It's not being out of power that's liberating, it's not having someone in power who's telling you go along with me because this is the way it has to be.

LIASSON: The CPAC Conference is a required stop for any Republican presidential hopeful, even if the election is 1,348 days away. Today, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich will give speeches.

(Soundbite if men talking)

LIASSON: Yesterday, Mike Huckabee signed copies of his book as he waited outside the ballroom. And he offered this advice for conservatives dealing with the new president:

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE: We have to understand that there are many Americans, including conservatives, who personally like Barack Obama. And we need to be very careful that we don't create this sense of trying to demonize him or say ridiculous things and irrational things. We ought to have a honest, intellectually forthright discussion of the reasons that the policies are not the right way, and then offer suggestions.

(Soundbite of men talking)

LIASSON: Around the corner in the exhibit hall, there were people handing out flyers saying, stop the Obama socialist revolution. There was a draft Sarah Palin booth, an NRA video shooting range, and a guy in a fuzzy gray animal suit.

Unidentified Man: I am the national taxpayers' bulldog, the tax watchdog, and I'm here to fight taxes.

LIASSON: Fighting taxes is a touchstone for conservatives, but the bulldog's handler, National Taxpayers Union spokesperson Kristen(ph) Rasmussen(ph), wants to fight that old battle with new tools.

Ms. KRISTINA RASMUSSEN (Spokesperson, National Taxpayers Union): During the campaign, President Obama used text messaging with great success. As to date, no conservative group has launched a text messaging advocacy service. We now have a system where you can sign up by texting fight to 54608. When an important tax bill comes up, we will let you know, send you your member of Congress or your senator's direct phone number, and you can call them from your cell phone.

LIASSON: Most activists here think in order to win again, conservatives need to return to their roots, to become more conservative. But others, like Kam(ph) Kilcullen(ph) from West Virginia, think the movement also has to come up with solutions to new problems, like the economy, energy and global competition.

Mr. KAM KILCULLEN: We need to figure out what we're doing wrong and move forward. There are new challenges now that require a party to adapt and change.

LIASSON: Then there was Jeff Brown from Maryland, who was wearing a big hell with Fidel button. To him, the conservative task is very simple.

Mr. JEFF BROWN: Get organized, streamline, and get back in the fight. You got nowhere to go but up.

LIASSON: On that last point, there would be universal agreement.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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