- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

When Sen. Marco Rubio left the stage at his first Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010, some in the audience were convinced they were watching a future presidential contender — the Republican Party’s response to President Obama.

Mr. Rubio returns to CPAC this weekend in the midst of the Republican presidential contest, with those predictions having been fulfilled.

The annual gathering of thousands of conservatives has regularly served as a political launching pad for right-wing stars, and this year’s crop of presidential candidates is no exception.

“I think Marco Rubio gave a breakout speech back when he was running for Senate in 2010,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the annual conference. “He came to CPAC, and that’s the first time a lot of these people had even heard his name.”

On the other hand, plenty of people had heard Ben Carson’s name by the time the retired neurosurgeon spoke at CPAC in 2013. Weeks earlier, at the National Prayer Breakfast, he delivered a shot heard ‘round the world, in essence confronting President Obama by offering an alternative to his health care law.

While designed to be a chance for conservative grass-roots leaders to talk and share strategy, CPAC also gives them a look at future candidates and gives those future candidates a chance to test their early messages.

Indeed, Mr. Rubio’s pitch on the campaign trail can be traced back to the theme of his 2010 speech — that his parents, who were Cuban immigrants, worked whatever jobs they could find so their children would have a chance at something better.

“Every chance I have ever had, and everything that I will ever accomplish, I owe to God, to my parents’ sacrifices and to the United States of America,” Mr. Rubio said, drawing sustained applause.

Mr. Carson used his first speech at CPAC to challenge racial lines in politics while taking aim at those who objected to what they saw as a firm denouncement of Mr. Obama at the prayer breakfast.

“How dare you insult my president?” Mr. Carson said in a mocking voice. “You are a n-word, and you need to get back it’s just unbelievable, you know? When did we reach a point where you have to have a certain philosophy because of the color of your skin? When did that happen?”

It appears as though Mr. Carson could use the conference to effectively end his presidential campaign as well. He said Wednesday that he didn’t see a political path forward in light of Super Tuesday’s results, that he was skipping the Republican presidential debate Thursday in Michigan, and that he would use his CPAC address Friday to talk more about his future.

Mr. Cruz was just a few months removed from winning election to the Senate in 2012 after taking down the Republican establishment candidate in a primary. He got sustained applause at CPAC in 2013 when he recalled how Sen. John McCain of Arizona had labeled people like him and fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky “wacko birds.”

“If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird,” Mr. Cruz said to cheers. “And I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”

In addition to the speeches, CPAC can boost candidates with its influential presidential preference straw poll, which tests the popularity of hopefuls.

Mr. Rubio came close to winning the 2013 CPAC presidential straw poll, finishing in second place with 23 percent of the vote behind Mr. Paul’s 25 percent. The Florida Republican slipped to seventh place in 2014 and 2015, though, as conservatives grew wary of his work on a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013 that offered a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants in the country.

Mr. Carson and Mr. Cruz both received 4 percent of the straw poll vote in 2013 but, unlike Mr. Rubio, have improved on their numbers. Mr. Cruz finished second in 2014 at 11 percent and Mr. Carson was in third at 9 percent, behind Mr. Paul’s 31 percent.

In 2015, Mr. Cruz finished in third, albeit with 11.5 percent of the vote, and Mr. Carson was right behind him again at 11.4 percent.

Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, has also been a CPAC staple in the past few years.

“These are my people — this is beautiful,” Mr. Trump told the crowd in 2011, testing an early version of his superlative-heavy campaign style.

The brash businessman won applause when he talked about how he would handle Somali pirates in a similar tone he uses when he now talks about how he’ll “bomb the hell out of ISIS.”

“How about the Somali pirates?” he said. “Now you know, that doesn’t really pertain to us. How simple would that be? If we had a good admiral, give me one good admiral and a couple of good ships, we’d blast them out of the water so fast.”

But he drew some jeers when he said former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the father of Rand Paul who won the CPAC straw poll in 2010 and 2011 and remains a hero to many libertarians, couldn’t get elected president.

Mr. Trump finished in eighth place in the 2015 straw poll, at 3.5 percent.

Jenny Beth Martin, who chairs the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, said it will be interesting to see how the crowd receives Mr. Trump this year now that he is an official candidate.

“Candidates are treated differently because they have to be vetted. They’re questioned differently than just somebody who’s coming as a celebrity to stand with you,” she said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how, now that he’s a candidate, what the reaction is.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who entered the presidential race well after all of the remaining contenders, hasn’t been a major factor at CPAC, but is scheduled to appear at the conference this week.

It looks like Mr. Carson might end up following the lead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who used his 2008 speech at CPAC to announce he was suspending his presidential campaign that year.

Mr. Romney still ended up winning the 2008 straw poll, as he did in 2007, 2009 and 2012.

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