- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

Gov. Chris Christie fired up the crowd at CPAC Thursday with his call for Republicans to present a positive agenda, while Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio laid out the outlines of what that kind of agenda could look like — and Rep. Paul Ryan sounded like a man who’s seriously thinking about running for the White House.

The Conservative Political Action Conference opened with speeches from some of the GOP’s brightest stars and potential presidential candidates, assuring activists that Republicans are poised for a comeback after losing two successive presidential elections.

The gathering of thousands of conservatives offered an early test for would-be presidential nominees and Washington insiders alike, each of them vying to capture the hearts of the activists who serve as the backbone of the nationwide movement.

But they also found themselves trying to pep up activists disappointed with the returns after three years of GOP control of the House, which produced some early Republican victories on spending but no major changes to Obamacare and no halt in the steadily rising national debt.

Mr. Christie, New Jersey governor and chairman of the Republican Governors Association, issued the broadest battle call by blasting Washington politicians of all stripes for failing the country and the party.

“Leadership is not about standing on the sidelines and spitballing,” Mr. Christie said.

Excluded from last year’s conference, Mr. Christie took pains to remind the audience of his pro-life stance and urged Republicans to think about principles and electability.

“We can’t govern if we can’t win,” he said, walking offstage to a standing ovation.

He was just one of a number of speakers to grapple with the question of how to govern while sticking to conservative principles — a problem for congressional Republican leaders who have had to cast votes on spending and debt that have left them at odds with the tea party and other conservative activists.

For Mr. Cruz, who helped spur some of those fights that caused headaches for Republican leaders, the answer was to stick to principle.

“You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing. Look at the last four congressional elections, ‘06, ‘08, ‘10 and ‘12. Three of the four we followed that strategy, ‘06, ‘08 and ‘12. We put our head down, we stood for nothing, and we got walloped,” the Texas Republican said in the opening address of the day. “The one election that was a tremendous election was 2010, when Republicans drew a line in the sand. We said we’d stand unequivocally against Obamacare, against bankrupting the country, and we won a historic tidal wave of an election.”

He went on to mock three of the GOP’s past four presidential nominees.

“All of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney,” he said. “Now, look, those are good men. They’re decent men. But when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”

With Mr. Cruz and other insurgents on the attack, those who hold the reins of the party — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012 — defended their attempts to reach compromise with Democrats.

“Look. I’ve been in politics long enough to know that if you throw your weight around like this, you will get thrown out of office. That is not just how a majority party acts. A majority party welcomes debate. It brings people in,” Mr. Ryan said.

He said progress in pushing the country — and the GOP — to the right will be slow, but it will come. When he started offering spending cuts in 2008, he said, few of his fellow lawmakers were willing to attach their names as co-sponsors. Now, his budget has passed the House three years in a row.

“This is how it always is. You fight it out. You figure out what works. You come together. Then, you win. It’s messy. It’s noisy. And it’s a little bit uncomfortable. But the center of gravity is shifting,” he said. “You know the way I see it? Let the other party be the party of personalities. We will be the party of ideas.”

Those in the audience grappled with many of the same questions as the potential presidential candidates over how to strike a balance between maintaining conservative values while reaching other voters.

“I tell you what, Chris Christie got a pretty nice response in there. He is a little bit too ‘big government’ Republican for my personal taste, but if he is a guy that will help capture those seats, then, ‘Yeah, Chris,’” said John Gorham, a 51-year-old Army veteran from Maryland.

Amid the red-meat attacks from the stage were the outlines of an agenda that conservatives could embrace.

Mr. Cruz proposed abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and imposing a flat tax, expanding school choice, auditing the Federal Reserve and passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Mr. Rubio called for Republicans to remain engaged in international affairs, saying that if U.S. policy doesn’t change, al Qaeda will have spread to dozens of countries within a decade, and American policymakers will be facing a militant Iran and a Russia bent on re-creating vestiges of the old Soviet Union.

“We cannot ignore that the flawed foreign policy of the last few years has brought us to this stage,” the Florida Republican said.

CPAC runs through Saturday.

Speakers slated for Friday include Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

On Saturday, results of the CPAC/Washington Times straw will be released, showing who the early front-runner is among conservative activists for the Republican presidential nomination.

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