CPAC Auditions GOP Candidates With the 2012 presidential race looming, prospective GOP candidates came to the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, trying to impress activists and potential supporters. NPR's Don Gonyea watched the parade of hopefuls.
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CPAC Auditions GOP Candidates

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CPAC Auditions GOP Candidates

CPAC Auditions GOP Candidates

CPAC Auditions GOP Candidates

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With the 2012 presidential race looming, prospective GOP candidates came to the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, trying to impress activists and potential supporters. NPR's Don Gonyea watched the parade of hopefuls.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The big annual gathering of conservative activists known as CPAC finishes up a three-day run at a Washington, D.C. hotel today. This year's event was also a runway show for potential presidential candidates. No one has officially declared for the Republican nomination yet - couldn't tell that from the speeches. NPR's Don Gonyea gives us a sampling.

DON GONYEA: Some are household names, some not so much. Some of these prospects have been down this path before, like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who spoke yesterday.

Former Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts): And it is going to take a lot more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It's going to take a new president.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Highlighting his own business experience, Romney also said President Obama's foreign policy has been weak and apologetic. Another former governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, had this message for Democrats:

Former Governor TIM PAWLENTY (Republican, Minnesota): So, I'll say it real slow so everyone can understand. Are you ready? We can't spend more than we take in.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Indiana's low-key Governor Mitch Daniels spoke at last night's CPAC dinner.

Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Indiana): Our morbidly obese federal government needs not just behavior modification but bariatric surgery.

Soundbite of laughter and applause)

GONYEA: These are all pretty big names, but some suggest next year's GOP nominee will not be well known but will come from out of nowhere. Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, the former CEO of a pizza chain, thinks he fits that bill.

Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Former CEO, Godfather's Pizza): The United States of America will not become the United States of Europe, not on our watch.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Also hoping to boost his name recognition here is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who appeals to libertarian voters with proposals like this:

Former Governor GARY JOHNSON (Republican, New Mexico): When I say legalize marijuana, control it, regulate it, tax it.

GONYEA: Name recognition isn't a problem for Donald Trump, who told CPAC that America has become a laughing stock around the world, and he did something unusual - he mentioned another potential candidate by name: Ron Paul.

Mr. DONALD TRUMP: I like Ron Paul. I think he's a good guy, but honestly he has just zero chance of getting elected. You have to win an election.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Then yesterday, Ron Paul had his turn. He did not mention Trump but he got revenge by winning the wildest cheers of the conference, largely from his youthful supporters who'd staked out seats in the ballroom early. Paul himself called out another branch of the conservative movement - the so-called neo-cons, who pushed for war in Iraq.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Where they believed that we have this moral responsibility to use force to go around the world and say you will do it our way or else. Well, force doesn't work. It never works.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: There was another very prominent voice at CPAC this year. It played on a constant loop on two video screens in the hotel lobby.

President RONALD REAGAN: The notion that government-controlled central planning and bureaucracy can provide cost-free prosperity has now come and gone the way of the hula hoop, the Nehru jackets and the all-asparagus diet.

GONYEA: Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, still sets the standard at CPAC. He's a tough act to follow, even decades later. But later today, the attendees here will take a straw poll to see who they think has the best chance of doing just that.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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