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Grass-Roots Conservatives Make Case at CPAC

February 14, 2010
  • FEBRUARY 19, 2010

    Right-Wing Activists Make Case

    Grass-Roots Conservatives Push Back Against Establishment Figures at Conference


    WASHINGTON—The divisions roiling American conservatives were on display Thursday at an annual gathering of activists, with the movement’s emerging leaders directly challenging the Republican establishment.

    The crowd assembled for the Conservative Political Action Conference greeted grass-roots darlings with cheers and standing ovations, including U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Florida and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

    The crowd roared Thursday morning when Mr. DeMint, opposing his own party leaders’ decisions to recruit centrist candidates, said he would prefer an ideologically pure 30-member caucus than 60 Republicans “who don’t believe in anything.”

    And the crowd gave standing ovations to Mr. Rubio, who has climbed in the polls by attacking his primary rival, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, for his support of President Barack Obama’s stimulus. “We are witnessing the single greatest pushback in American history,” Mr. Rubio said. “Never has the political class or the mainstream media been more out of touch with the American people than they are today.”

    Mr. Rubio took a swipe at Mr. Crist by inference when he said the old rules of political engagement wouldn’t apply this year. “For example, a long list of early establishment endorsements will not spare you a primary,” he said, to applause. Mr. Crist was endorsed early by the Senate Republicans’ campaign operation.

    WSJ’s Naftali Bendavid reports back from the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of activists and Republican officials, which this year is dominated by heroes of the Tea Party movement.

    The decades-old Conservative Political Action Conference is an annual fixture in the Washington conservative establishment. This year’s meeting has been fashioned to reflect the anti-establishment mood sweeping the Republican base. It is an effort, organizers said, to fold newly energized activists into machinery built over the past 40 years by now-aging movement leaders.

    Conservative activism has roared to life since the summer, prompted by the deep economic downturn and disillusionment with the expanding role of government. Many were enraged by Mr. Obama’s health-overhaul plan, but a burgeoning movement of “tea party” groups has focused anger at Washington Republicans, as well, for excessive spending under the Bush administration and an embrace by some GOP leaders of Wall Street bailouts.

    The conference also featured figures from the establishment that has drawn activists’ rage—including congressional GOP leaders and potential 2012 presidential candidates Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

    Mr. Romney won CPAC presidential straw polls in the lead-up to his 2008 White House campaign and last year. But he never earned the full embrace of conservatives skeptical of past liberal positions. On Thursday, Mr. Romney was treated politely, in part because he was introduced by Sen. Scott Brown, whose victory in Massachusetts to replace the late Edward Kennedy is being hailed as a victory for the movement.

    Bookending Mr. Rubio’s Thursday keynote address will be one Saturday night from Glenn Beck, the talk-show host and supporter of the tea-party movement, who said on his radio show recently that he agreed to appear because CPAC attendees are “as angry at the Republicans as I am.” Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, another hero to many grass-roots activists, turned down an invitation to attend.

    Getty ImagesFormer Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, is greeted by Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown at the Conservative Political Action Conference.


    Organizers tried to strike the right balance of emboldening new activists while avoiding the fringe. They rejected a request for a panel discussion questioning whether Mr. Obama was a natural-born citizen. They did allow a discussion titled “When All Else Fails,” on how states can resist “federal tyranny.”

    The challenges facing conservatives could be seen throughout the day. Activists cheered the surprise appearance of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been leading the charge accusing the Obama administration of weakness on terrorism. At the same time, the political action committee of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, called Campaign for Liberty, was ubiquitous at the Marriott hotel hosting the conference, underscoring how Mr. Paul has moved into the mainstream of the movement. The libertarian was treated by GOP officials as a pariah for his 2008 presidential campaign in which he bashed the party for its spending habits and criticized the Iraq war championed by Mr. Cheney.

    CPAC officials said the event, which isn’t directly affiliated with a political party, was the natural place for the splintered conservative movement to meet. The event is one of the few conservative political events geared toward young activists. About half the 10,000 attendees were expected to be college students; many of them flocked to sessions on the conference sidelines for training on grass-roots organizing, online social networking and fund raising.

    “We are the anti-establishment establishment,” said longtime movement leader David Keene, a former Reagan political hand who is chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that runs CPAC.

    The efforts to push activists into the embrace of the Republican Party comes as some tea partiers are starting to push conservatives to run as third-party candidates instead of fighting primary battles.

    Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman, said CPAC could be a useful bridge between the activists and the party leadership as long as the activists feel disaffected. “It’s highly unlikely that we’re going to have a third party in America,” he said. “Hopefully, the Republican Party will regain the brand, the trust, and will be a welcome place for everyone here.”

    Write to Peter Wallsten at and Susan Davis at



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