Like Dr. Evil, did the GOP just steal Obama’s mojo?

Tea partiers and RINOs mingle at energized CPAC convention. President Obama’s policies have galvanized conservatives, but will the GOP have the answers that key independents want to hear?

By , Staff writer

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    Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference ( CPAC) in Washington. Republicans who want President Barack Obama's job descended on the town they love to hate this weekend and repeatedly ripped into the Democrat, an early tryout of sorts for the GOP nomination.
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They are brought together by a single tantalizing feeling: President Obama has in their eyes gone from hero to zero in a short 13 months, meaning Democrats are running scared ahead of the 2010 mid-term elections.

Meeting at a giddy Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, conservative activists and presidential hopefuls are painting a picture of a party in resurgence.

"[Obama] had more mojo than any president that I remember when he was inaugurated a year and a month ago.… But now, the master-mesmerizer has lost his mojo," Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa told about 1,000 attendees at the annual conference. "And if we stand our ground as constitutional conservatives, he's not going to get it back." [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph listed the wrong US representative.]

But if Republicans are playing the role of Dr. Evil stealing Austin Power’s mojo, there’s always the concern that Obama can, in fact, steal that elusive something-something back in time for the closing credits, er, the 2010 mid-term elections.

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Can independents be drawn in?

And the GOP’s bluster at CPAC belies a big question: Amid the red-meat speeches and Democrat-bashing, what does the GOP actually stand for beyond bromides about smaller government and muscular foreign policy? Will key independents ultimately buy into the party’s newfound fiscal discipline – or be turned off by what critics call the wingnut factor?

Listening to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty urge Americans to emulate Tiger Woods’s wife Elin Nordegren and “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government,” critics like Gail Collins at the New York Times and Mike Lux at the Huffington Post point out how too many CPAC Republicans revel in violent imagery to get their points across.

“While there has always been a crazy streak in the conservative movement … the most wild extremists have never taken over the movement lock, stock and barrel before,” writes Mr. Lux. “Today they are thoroughly in control.”

And Obama himself seemed to sense the divide between partisan cheerleading and dire realities in Washington this morning when he invited Republicans to a healthcare summit but added, “I don't want to see this meeting turn into political theater.”

More middle-of-the-road critics say Republicans are ultimately hawking the same tired small government message, seemingly oblivious to the fact that deficit reduction may require tax increases along with spending cuts.

“Intellectually honest conservatives are homeless,” writes the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder.

Ground shifting for CPAC

Nevertheless, the ground does seem to be shifting for conservatives at CPAC.

Founded in 1974, CPAC is today a sort of culture war relic, epitomized by Gov. Pawlenty on Thursday citing God as the first of four conservative principles. Nothing wrong with that, except many Americans might read that as commentary on divisive social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

On the other hand, Rep. Mike Pence got far greater ovation by staying on the kind of fiscal message that the “tea party” movement took to the streets to exhort last year.

“We're in the fight for fiscal discipline and limited government, and we are on the side of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. “This is our moment.”

Mr. Pence wasn’t the only one to witness the tent poles getting wider at this year’s CPAC.

“[I]t was striking to see in speech after speech many of the wedge issues that so preoccupied the most recent GOP majority – Terry Schiavo, abortion, stem cells, gays, family values, religion in government – sublimated to the GOP's laser-like focus on the economy and to see the CPAC's attempts … to widen their tent,” writes Jay Newton-Small in Time.

Up Saturday at CPAC: Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck.

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