A governor and three U.S. senators emerged as probable first-tier candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination by the windup of the 40th anniversary Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz grabbed and held the audience of more than 3,000 conservative activists, registering more standing ovations during, and positive crowd buzz after, their speeches than did any of the other potential GOP presidential nomination aspirants.
Mr. Walker talked about how he survived a recall election forced by public employees unions that had resisted his successful efforts to make public employees cover part of their health insurance premiums. He also angered them by denying union demands for salary and pension benefits increases.
He said by risking his governorship to solve his state's budget crisis, he showed that he cared about taxpayers struggling with a bad economy and the unfairness of making those same taxpayers shell out more for union benefits when public employees were earning more in salaries than private-sector workers.
Mr. Rubio distinguished himself as the only potential presidential nomination candidate at CPAC to address foreign policy. He addressed the defense of America's superpower status against China's cyberspace attacks and desire to surpass the United States economically and militarily.
Mr. Paul skipped foreign policy and focused instead on bringing pressure on the executive branch of the U.S. government to follow the Constitution.
He had the advantage of hearing every other major CPAC speaker, including Mitt Romney, praise his having led a filibuster to successfully force the Obama administration to acknowledge the primacy of the Constitution and due process.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio enhanced their standing among Republicans by citing their Cuban-American heritage, but Mr. Cruz showed he had the best unofficial presidential nomination organization. At the end of his rousing speech, he asked the audience to text him to spread his "growth and opportunity" message. In doing so, he captured more than 1,000 cellphone numbers for his potential nomination campaign.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's CPAC address during the annual Ronald Reagan banquet drew shouted rebukes from former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who from his table near the stage repeatedly taunted Mr. Bush during his speech, asking when he was going to defend constitutional principles.
Mr. Hayworth and others at the dinner were objecting to Mr. Bush's statements that he would consider raising taxes to help balance the budget and he would reach out to Hispanics voters with comprehensive immigration reform, which some activists interpret as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The CPAC crowd had high expectations for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose parents were born in Punjab, India. Considered a likely 2016 contender, he executed a laugh-sustaining stand-up comedy routine, much like the president's annual performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
But when he moved to policy talk, audience attention began to wander, with some saying it reminded them of Mr. Jindal's lackluster 2009 response to President Obama's State of the Union speech.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate last year, lit few fires with his speech. He was attacked in a later CPAC address by Media Research Center President Brent Bozell, who derided him for putting forward a weak plan that wouldn't achieve a balanced budget for 10 years.
Based on the loud, sustained cheers for his comments, Mr. Bozell's criticism was shared by other activists at CPAC.
Many in the audience considered Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be right on point as a conservative but his delivery was pockmarked with fumbled lines that he had to repeat in attempting — not always successfully — to make clear to his audience.
His performance reminded activists of the fumbles during his presidential run last year.
Considered unlikely candidates for 2016, Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivered addresses that were nonetheless eagerly anticipated by much of the CPAC audience — over half of whom were in the 18-25 age bracket.
Mr. Romney, despite his failed presidential campaign last year, drew the largest crowd — nearly 3,000 — and the loudest sustained applause at Friday's CPAC sessions.
"For the young people, Romney was their first presidential campaign and they think he is very conservative," said former Hawaii Republican Party chairman Willes Lee, a CPAC regular. "Romney was smart to praise Rand Paul" in his speech, saying he stood with the Kentucky senator and his Senate filibuster on behalf of due process.
Mr. Gingrich, with the reputation of being one of the most cerebral of Republicans holding office in Washington, was the only speaker to share his allotted podium time with his wife. His own speech elicited the foot-stomping enthusiasm characteristic of his CPAC appearances over three decades.
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