Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney yesterday delivered a faultlessly tailored appeal to more than 1,000 grass-roots conservative activists hungry for a renewed commitment to limited government.
Addressing the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Mr. Romney stood out from the pack of Republican presidential aspirants that included Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mike Huckabee by promising to end taxes on earnings from interest, dividends and capital gains, and to cap federal spending and veto every attempt to break that cap — whether proposed by a Republican or Democratic Congress.
“I know how to veto. I like vetoes,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who served in President Reagan’s Justice Department, said the late president understood that ideas, not race or ethnicity, are what identify Americans.
Drawing nearly as much applause but not the repeated standing ovations Mr. Romney received, Mr. Giuliani said, “it’s very critical to begin every discussion” of Iraq and Afghanistan with the understanding that the United States is a nation that covets peace.
“Maybe we made a mistake in calling it the ‘war on terror.’ It is a war [by terrorists] on us,” he said.
Mr. Giuliani also told the conservatives he shared their goal of offering school choice. But he skimmed over other deep differences, telling the crowd they share some beliefs and not others, just like “your relationship, I think, with your husband, your wife, your children.”
In interviews afterward, some attendees said Mr. Giuliani lost momentum when he heaped lavish praise on Abraham Lincoln.
While many conservatives regard the Civil War president as the spiritual founder of the Republican Party, others deeply resent him as a man who ruthlessly suspended constitutional rights and freedoms in order to militarily challenge the South’s belief in its right to secede. Some saw similar disdain for individuals’ rights in Mr. Giuliani’s successful war on crime in New York City.
Mr. Giuliani took the side of the Bush administration on an issue that troubles civil libertarian conservatives, saying that “you need the tools like the Patriot Act and legal intelligence surveillance.”
“Rudy thought he was addressing a Republican audience,” said Mike Long, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. “Mitt understood this is an audience of people who are conservatives first.”
Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani consistently rank in the top tier of Republican presidential contenders, along with Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. McCain is the only major candidate not to address CPAC, while Mr. Gingrich, who today is to give the closing speech of the three-day conference, has said he won’t make a decision about running until September.
Many conservatives argue Republicans lost in last year’s elections because they forgot conservative principles, particularly limited government. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a key voice for limited government, said the elections were the bottom of a descent he has seen coming.
“We’re no longer off course. We’ve run aground. Six years without a course correction was simply too much,” he said.
So powerful is the anti-tax sentiment among conservatives here that Mr. Huckabee, who just recently had refused to rule out raising taxes, announced he was signing Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge not to raise taxes.
Mr. Romney, though, made the boldest overture of the day, saying it is “time to take government apart and put it back together, but this time let’s make it simpler, smarter and smaller.”
Coming into the conference, conservatives were looking for a champion and Mr. Huckabee summed up the attitude of many.
“The theme might be, dude, where’s my candidate?” the former Arkansas governor said. “Well, I like to think that maybe he’s standing in front of you.”
He urged conservatives to go beyond the powerful lures of money and name recognition in choosing whom to back.
“If celebrity and money are the criteria to be president of the United States then Paris Hilton might be our next president,” Mr. Huckabee said, adding he was a consistent conservative during his more than 10 years as governor.
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said he would be “the family president” who would be proudly pro-life, and also would tackle big government through a flat tax.
Holding up a copy of the tax code, he said, “This should be taken behind the barn and killed with a dull ax.”
Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is also exploring a bid for president, said he was surprised by the quadrennial rush to the right for many of the leading candidates.
“For those of us who have been conservatives even before Al Gore invented the Internet, this is all mildly sort of amusing,” he said.
Mr. Tancredo, a major opponent of illegal entry into the United States, concedes he probably won’t win, but said he will make sure candidates address issues central to conservatism.
“The conservative movement is not supposed to choose a candidate; it’s supposed to produce one,” he said.
For his part, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, warned that the country is facing a growing threat from China, and said the country needs to change the trade policies that have sent key defense industries overseas.
“The arsenal of democracy is being fractured and sent across the world,” he said.