Start with a big ballroom at a resort hotel just outside D.C. Add thousands of conservative activists. Stir in hundreds of political journalists, and you’ve got an irresistible attraction for any Republican presidential hopeful.
For those with their eye on the Oval Office, it’s also an early audition before a key audience.
It’s the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — CPAC for short — where there’s always talk of the next presidential election. This year as many as 10 possible 2016 candidates were invited to speak during the three-day event.
Speeches started on the first morning, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Now I do have to start with a bit of bad news this morning,” Cruz said. “I’m sorry to tell you that by virtue of your being here today, tomorrow morning each and every one of you is going to be audited by the IRS.”
Jokes about the Obama administration were plentiful. But Cruz, a hero to the GOP’s Tea Party wing, also mocked the establishment of his own party for nominating presidential candidates considered the most electable.
“Then of course, all of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney,” Cruz deadpanned.
Another senator who spoke the first day, Marco Rubio of Florida, invoked Ronald Reagan in attacking Obama’s foreign policy.
“The president loves to point to Ronald Reagan and say, ‘Well, Reagan talked to Russia, Reagan talked to the Soviet Union. Why can’t we talk to Iran?’ ” Rubio said. “But there is a difference. Reagan dealt with the Soviet Union because they had nuclear weapons and he wanted peace. But he never accepted the Soviet Union.”
Governors who spoke included Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry of Texas, who is considering another White House run, despite a very disappointing presidential bid in 2012.
“I am here today to say we don’t have to accept recent history,” Perry said. “We just need to change the presidency.”
Another governor, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, is still dealing with a scandal over lane closures and massive traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. Christie said Republicans need to talk about what they are for, rather than what they are against.
“Here’s another thing we’ve got to stop doing,” Christie told fellow conferees. “We have got to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”
Also taking the stage was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, another veteran of 2012, who said he can build on his last campaign.
Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, spoke of divisions within the GOP.
“It’s Tea Party vs. establishment,” he said. “Libertarians vs. social conservatives. There’s infighting. Conflict. Discord. Look, I’m Irish. That’s my idea of a family reunion.”
The latest polls don’t allow any Republican to claim frontrunner status, but it is clear that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has emerged as a top tier candidate. Paul spoke Friday and drew both the biggest crowd — standing room only — and the loudest cheers with his message of libertarian values.
“Will we sit idly by and let our rights be trampled upon?” Rand said. “Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace? Or will we stand like men and women of character and say we are free, and no man, no matter how well-intentioned, will take our freedom from us?”
Paul was leading in the straw poll among CPAC attendees Friday, much as his father, Ron Paul, did in the past. Still to be seen is whether the son can outdo the father, once the actual primaries begin.