"George Washington” is here with his tricorn hat and Don’t Tread on Me flag. Young women sport Sarah Palin hairdos, and little Constitutions peek out of young men’s shirt pockets – some with Ron Paul 2012 buttons nearby. Oh, and The Donald is in the house.
The unscheduled appearance Thursday by Donald Trump was undoubtedly the highlight of Day 1 of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the carnival of conservatism that descends on Washington every year around this time. But this year, there’s more of everything – more people (11,000 and counting), more rowdiness, more potential presidential candidates. And Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee aren’t even coming.
At last count, including Mr. Trump, at least 13 possible contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will have given speeches by the end of the three-day conference. But no one could match Trump for the wow factor, when rumors began to swirl first thing Thursday morning that he was coming and would reveal that he is thinking of running for president.
Aside from Trump, Thursday’s roster of presidential possibles included Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (she of “wrong camera” fame, in her State of the Union tea party response), former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
CPAC's cavalcade of stars
There was a lot of cheerleading and Obama-bashing, with a few policy ideas thrown in for good measure. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who isn’t running for president (though his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, may), talked about cutting entitlements – a suggestion that used to be politically suicidal, but given the skyrocketing national debt, won some applause.
Congresswoman Bachmann warned of how, under President Obama, “socialism rears its ugly head,” calling “Obamacare” the “crown jewel of socialism.” She reminded the audience that the president of China is named Hu, “and with all the money that we owe China, I think we might rightly say: Hu’s your daddy.” That got laughter and applause.
Mr. Gingrich, who hints every four years he might run for president, but might actually do it this time, focused his remarks on energy policy, proposing replacement of the Environmental Protection Agency with an “environmental solutions agency.” He accused the Obama administration of waging a “war against American energy,” and suggested “it’s time we passed an aggressively pro-American energy policy.”
Mr. Santorum criticized Obama for siding with the Egyptian protesters instead of longtime American friend, President Hosni Mubarak. “We’ve turned our backs on ... almost all of our allies,” Santorum said. Conservatives have been split, in fact, over how to approach the fast-moving events in Egypt. And it’s doubtful that foreign policy will be the strongest argument against Obama in 2012. But at least the issue came up.
Trump's got 'bravado'
Then there was Trump. Former Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis summed up his 10-minute speech in one word: “bravado.” It’s highly questionable, perhaps even doubtful that the billionaire real estate developer and reality TV star will actually run, but in his CPAC appearance he showed how to own a room. And he got off some good lines, mostly centered on his own greatness.
“If I run and if I win, this country has a chance of being respected again,” he said.
And then this: "Considering the shape the US is in right now, we need a competitive person, a highly competent person, or we're going to have very serious problems, very soon.”
Trump also showed he’s not afraid to tell people the hard truth: “By the way,” he said, “Ron Paul cannot get elected. I’m sorry folks.” The rowdy contingent of Paul supporters booed loudly. “I like Ron Paul,” Trump added, “but he has zero chance of getting elected.”
Congressman Paul will have his chance to respond when he addresses CPAC on Friday. Other possible/probable presidential candidates still to speak are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, and businessman Herman Cain.
On Saturday, the results of a presidential straw poll will be announced. But if the past is any guide, the winner of the CPAC poll will have no bearing on who might actually get the Republican nomination.