Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, often overshadowed by some of the chamber's more high-profile conservatives, won the warmest reception on the opening day of a major gathering of Christian conservatives in Washington on Thursday, ahead of two certified crowd-pleasers: fellow Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Continuing the decadeslong internal Republican struggle over foreign policy, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul clashed over foreign interventionism and America's role in the world, but their argument wasn't the biggest enthusiasm generator on the first day of the three-day conference.
Citing the Obama administration's recent woes with scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service, the National Security Administration and the State Department, Mr. Johnson told the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference that conservatives should "apply this dysfunction" to remind voters of the virtues of limited government.
"When I hear politicians talk about restoring faith in government — no, no, no, no, no," he said. "That is the wrong solution. We need to engender that healthy distrust that our founders found with government."
"I came excited to hear Paul and Rubio, but if I were to step back and evaluate, I'd say the most impactful speaker was Sen. Johnson," said Brian Stuckert, who heads a Northern Virginia engineering firm. "His were the most thoughtful and substantive remarks."
Mr. Rubio, Mr. Paul, Mr. Johnson and the cerebral conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah were the four Republican horsemen of the luncheon podium that opened longtime Christian conservative activist Ralph Reed's three-day conference. The lawmakers made the five-minute drive from Capitol Hill to address some 250 paying luncheon guests and dignitaries seated at round tables in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
Opposites in personality and style, the charismatic Mr. Rubio and the more low-key Mr. Paul are likely rivals for the 2016 presidential nomination. Mr. Lee is not the most stirring speaker in the Senate Republican caucus, but is the go-to intellectual conservative for colleagues and outside activists.
Mr. Johnson, 58, who was a business executive before winning a Senate seat in 2010, was the eldest of the four speakers and among the least-known senators nationally.
Calling Mr. Johnson a "quantitative policy guy," Mr. Stuckert said he was "quite taken by his use of facts and figures to show how the welfare state solidifies people, solidifies the unfortunate inequality of wealth."
Dana Hudson, a political consultant also from Northern Virginia, said she was most impressed by Mr. Rubio and his comments on "why the conservative movement should focus on compassion in deciding immigration issues."
As for who won the warmest reception between the two 2016 presidential aspirants, Ms. Hudson declared it "a tie between Paul and Rubio. The audience was extremely excited to see both of them."
Jim Martin, chairman of the 60 Plus Association — the conservative alternative to the AARP — said Mr. Paul was "more outstanding" than Mr. Rubio in the warmth of audience reception.
"What this audience cared about was their distrust of our national government, and Paul and Rubio — and Johnson too — got such big rounds of applause when they mentioned it," he said.
The clearest clash between Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul was over the issue that has increasingly divided conservatives and Republicans — U.S. intervention abroad.
Mr. Rubio said it is incumbent on the United States to intervene when the basic principles of humanity are at stake. He rejected the idea that "somehow the time has come for America to retreat from the world and ignore the issues that are around that us."
"There is no other light. There is no other nation. There is no other example," Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Paul argued that well-intentioned meddling by the U.S. has helped the country's enemies and hurt the innocent.
The Kentuckian bemoaned the Senate's attempt "to arm the rebel forces in Syria, many of whom are al Qaeda or affiliates." U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, he said, will bring "more violence and more persecution of Christians, who have long been protected in Syria."
Taking a stand that polls show Americans in both parties increasingly support, Mr. Paul noted that during "the Iraq War, over a quarter-million Iraqi Christians fled Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but his government was secular and therefore relatively safe for Christians. Christians, however, feared the Shiite government that we helped put in place after Saddam, and they fled in droves [to] Syria, joining the over 1 million Syrians who have lived as Christians since the time of Christ."
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