The road to the presidential election is long and tortuous, as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney knows better than most.
He returned Friday to a major starting point on that road – the Conservative Political Action Conference – grateful for the rousing reception he received but far from triumphant. His loss last November to President Obama came as a stunning surprise to Romney, his wife Ann and his senior campaign advisers. But now he wanted to use that setback for what Obama /node/57038
would call a “teachable moment” at an event that could very well help to determine the next Republican presidential nominee.
“It’s up to us to make sure we learn from our mistakes, and from my mistakes, and we take advantage of that learning to make sure that we take back the nation, take back the White House, get the Senate,” Romney said Friday afternoon to a large gathering at a resort hotel, just outside of Washington. But Romney didn’t dwell on his “47 percent makers vs. takers” gaff and his inability to get supporters to the polls.
The Romney speech was an encore that was warmly received by conservatives, many of whom had grave reservations about his ideological credentials when he ran for president. But the presidential hopefuls who followed are convinced they already know the lessons of 2012 – and they weren’t afraid to share their vision of what needed to be done.
The latest crop of presidential wannabees ranges from freshmen senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, who arrived fresh from a symbolically important 13-hour filibuster on the U.S. drones policy, and Marco Rubio of Florida, who is perceived to be his party’s bridge to Latino voters, to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who served as Romney’s vice presidential running mate.
Paul narrowly won the majority of votes cast by conservative activists in a presidential straw poll taken at the CPAC gathering over the weekend. Paul captured 25 percent of the vote, barely beating Rubio who received 23 percent. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a presidential candidate in 2012, finished third, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finished fourth.
Christie and another possible contender, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, were missing from the festivities. They are both officials from "blue" or "purple" states that Romney said Republicans could learn from.
They were shunned by CPAC for two cardinal sins: McDonnell recently pushed through a major statewide transportation plan that included a substantial tax hike and Christie offended many in his party by getting too friendly with Obama after the administration moved swiftly to assist his hurricane ravaged state.
Here’s a summary of some of the Republican presidential aspirants and where they stand in this earliest phase of the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes:
Marco Rubio: Some pundits have dubbed the Florida senator the new de facto leader of the Republican Party because of his natural gifts as a speaker (although he is still trying to live down his awkward grab for a bottle of water during his Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address), the excitement he generates among Hispanics, and the leading role he has assumed in the immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill.
While Romney urged illegal immigrants to “self deport” during the campaign, Rubio, the 41-year-old son of Cuban refugees, sees virtue in advocating a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
Many conservatives disagree with Rubio on immigration and the Florida senator was silent on the topic during his well-received appearance before CPAC on Thursday. Instead, Rubio used his speech to build up the middle class and argue that the vast majority of Americans are not reliant on government services — as Romney suggested in remarks to donors in the so-called “47 percent” video.
“The vast majority of the American people are hard-working taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, they pay their mortgage on time, they volunteer in their community,” Rubio said. “This is where the vast majority of the American people are.”
Rand Paul: The first-term Kentucky senator was the talk of CPAC after waging a 13-hour filibuster on Obama’s choice of a new CIA director, using the time to demand clarification of U.S. policy on the use of drones, and clashing with veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who called him and his accomplices “wacko birds.”
Paul drew thunderous applause when he declared that “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” and that a new GOP “will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.”
Paul is imbued with his father’s libertarian ideals, including smaller government and disengaging from foreign alliances and wars. But the son is quickly demonstrating he is a far more adroit politician – with much broader appeal – than his father, the former House member and presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas. During a foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation last month, the 50-year-old Rand Paul struck a more middle-of-the-road stance than that of his quasi-isolationist father.
Jeb Bush : After sitting out the 2012 presidential campaign, the former Florida governor and scion of one of the most politically successful families in history, is testing the waters for a 2016 bid for president.
Bush was invited to make a keynote speech at a CPAC dinner Friday evening, but there was little said about him or his brother, former President George W. Bush, throughout much of the three day conference.
While Jeb Bush, 60, is a lot blander than his brother, he is seen as more of a leading figure on education and immigration reform. Even so, Bush appeared woefully out of step with some in his party on immigration reform following release a week ago of his new book, “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution.”
In the book, Bush advocated for legislation that would provide illegal immigrants with a path to legal residency—but not a path to citizenship, as Rubio and a bipartisan group of senators are now promoting. Bush was forced to backpedal on the issue to put himself more in line with the emerging GOP consensus on Capitol Hill.
Bobby Jindal: The hard-charging Louisiana governor and son of immigrants from India quickly rose to national prominence with his deft handling of his state’s response to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, only to stumble badly with a poorly delivered Republican response to Obama’s first major address to Congress in February 2009.
Jindal, 41, was frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign but never got the call. After the election, Jindal criticized Romney for failing to accept responsibility for his loss to Obama. And he urged Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” and move away from “dumb-downed conservatism.”
Jindal on Friday repeated much of the critique of his party that he delivered Jan. 24 in a speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, but he dropped the “stupid” line. He attacked the GOP’s fixation on the budget, an indirect swipe at Paul Ryan and his drive for a balanced budget at all cost. "This obsession with zeroes has everyone in our party focused on what? The government," he said. "By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our economy is the phony economy of Washington, D.C., instead of the real economy out in Billings or in Baton Rouge."
Paul Ryan: The 2012 vice presidential nominee and House budget chief has said he could very well run for president in 2016 but must wait to wrap up budget and deficit talks before making any political career decision.
Ryan is very popular with the GOP conservative base and received a hero’s welcome with his call for a balanced budget during his appearance Friday before the CPAC audience. Ryan told the audience that “we’re on the verge of a debt crisis” that could drive up interest rates, undermine confidence in the government and the dollar, and stifle economic growth. “The president says we’re in recovery,” Ryan said. “I say we’re in critical care.”
The youthful Wisconsin congressman is blessed with strong name ID after serving as Romney’s running mate. But Ryan is by nature a policy wonk, and he has yet to demonstrate a real gift for elevating his rhetoric beyond a clarion call for fiscal soundness. And by serving as his party’s chief advocate for balancing the budget and dismantling Obamacare and traditional Medicare, Ryan will be a lightning rod for criticism from Democrats and more moderate members of his party.