NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – Republican 2016 hopefuls lobbed bombs at President Obama, Hillary Clinton, union protesters and sometimes each other, on day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a traditional showcase event for GOP presidential candidates.
Likely White House contenders speaking from the main stage on Thursday included Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former HP executive Carly Fiorina. Friday will feature former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
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The audience at CPAC tends to skew right and libertarian – Rand Paul won its last two presidential straw polls, Ron Paul two of the three years before him – with many college activists making the trek to see their favorite politicians up close and do some networking.
A big question will be how Bush fares on Friday. While the former governor has moved into the front-runner role by rapidly accumulating elite support and donors, many conservatives are suspicious of his support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards, as well as his overall establishment ties. Rather than delivering a speech, Bush will participate in a question-and-answer session onstage with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Chris Christie threw a direct shot Bush’s way in an onstage interview with radio host Laura Ingraham.
“If what happens is the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president is going to be, then he’s definitely the front-runner,” Christie said. “If the people of the United States decide to pick the next president of the United States, and they want someone who looks them in the eye, is one of them, and connects with them, I’ll do okay if I run.”
Ingraham pushed Christie hard in her interview, bringing up his low poll numbers and asking whether his famously combative temperament would turn off voters.
“Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up,” Christie said, saying his confrontations with New Jersey voters at public events showed he was “passionate.”
Without naming Bush, Cruz described himself in a speech as a Republican willing to take on others in his party for growing too close to its establishment wing.
“The biggest divide we have in this country is between career politicians and Washington and the American people,” he said to applause.
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Common Core came up repeatedly, including in a panel discussion that featured several critics of the policy. In the first 2016er appearance of the day on Thursday, Carson decried Common Core as “not school choice.”Jindal, a former Common Core supporter, also criticized the standards extensively in his own speech.
Bush’s biggest concern may be Walker, who has surged to a lead in national polls of GOP voters after a strong speech at the conservative Iowa Freedom Summit last month. The Wisconsin governor spoke to a packed ballroom on Thursday and kept his fire focused firmly on Obama, who Walker said “measures success by government by how many people are dependent on the government.”
As a governor, Walker’s portfolio has been light on foreign policy compared to the senators in the race, and he offered little in specifics when asked how he’d confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria while generally pledging to protect America from attacks. But he did suggest that his battles with unions over collective bargaining rights might help prepare him for the job.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said.
That line drew a swift response from Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee.
“If Scott Walker thinks that it’s appropriate to compare working people speaking up for their rights to brutal terrorists, then he is even less qualified to be president than I thought,” Elleithee said. “Maybe he should go back to punting.”
Foreign policy wasn’t the only area where Walker seemed uncomfortable getting into the weeds. Asked whether he opposed new “net neutrality” rules governing Internet, he declined to give a clear take beyond saying ”the guiding principle should be freedom” on the issue.
Like Walker, Jindal’s speech was heavy on barbs at Obama’s foreign policy, which he complained did not target Islamic terrorism aggressively enough.
“President Obama has disqualified himself,” Jindal said. “He has shown himself incapable of being our Commander-in-Chief.”
CPAC comes amid a week of scrutiny focused on Hillary Clinton. Critics slammed the as-of-yet undeclared Democratic front-runner for foreign donations to her family’s Clinton Global Initiative, and foreign speeches by husband Bill Clinton that raised ethics concerns. Cruz and Fiorina each referenced the story in their remarks, with the former joking that CPAC could have paid Clinton to speak at the event, ”but we couldn’t find a foreign nation to foot the bill.”
“Mrs. Clinton please name an accomplishment,” Fiorina said. “And in the meantime, please … explain why we should accept that the millions and millions of dollars that have flowed into the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments do not represents a conflict of interest.”
Fiorina was one of the most well received speakers of the day, rousing the crowd with a speech directed at Clinton.
“If Hillary Clinton had to face me on the debate stage at the very least she would have a hitch in her swing,” she boasted in the Q&A portion of her appearance.