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At CPAC, Field Appears Wide Open for 2012 Republican Nomination

February 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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At the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Republican presidential hopefuls began pitching their candidacies to the conservative faithful. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re still a year away from the Iowa caucuses, but the first cattle call of the 2012 presidential campaign began this week.

The one thing conservatives won’t have heading into 2012 is a lack of options. For proof, look no further than this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which got under way yesterday here in Washington.

By the time the three-day gathering of more than 11,000 activists wraps up tomorrow, as many as a dozen potential candidates will have taken their turn before the crowd, among them, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who directed his remarks this morning, not at his primary competition but the man he would face if he made it to the general election.

MITT ROMNEY (R), former Massachusetts governor: And it’s going to take a lot more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It’s going to take a new president.


MITT ROMNEY: Let me make this very clear. If I were to decide to run for president, it wouldn’t take…


MITT ROMNEY: It sure wouldn’t take me two years to wake up to the job crisis threatening America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Criticism of President Obama and his policies was the constant theme.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also zeroed in on the economy.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), former speaker of the House: Why are we in a mess? Why do we have over 9 percent unemployment? Well, the Obama administration is anti-jobs, anti-small business, anti-manufacturing, pro-trial lawyer, pro-bureaucrat, pro-deficit spending and pro-high taxes.

What do you think is going to happen?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann called repealing the president’s health care overhaul the driving motivation of her life.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-Minn.): We have seen President Obama usher in socialism under his watch over the last two years.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: And Obamacare is quite clearly the crown jewel of socialism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Others, meanwhile, looked to introduce themselves to the crowd, with a recent poll showing name recognition to be a most helpful factor at this stage of the race.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty spoke of his blue-collar upbringing.

TIM PAWLENTY (R), former Minnesota governor: So, at a very young age, I saw up close the face of loss, the face of hardship, the face of losing a job. And I saw in the mirror something else: the face of a very uncertain future. So, I know Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling. I have lived it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And while two of the most-talked about 2012 possibilities, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, skipped the event, there was one surprise appearance.

WOMAN: You’re hired!


DONALD TRUMP, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts: You’re hired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Billionaire real-estate developer and television personality Donald Trump said he, too, was thinking about running.

DONALD TRUMP: And I can tell you this. If I run, and if I win, this country will be respected again.


DONALD TRUMP: This country will be respected again. I can tell you that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Last November’s Republican victories have been a shot in the arm for conservatives, and they have brought that new energy here. But it’s not yet channeled toward a particular candidate.

Unlike most recent GOP nomination battles, not only is there not a clear front-runner; the field seems wide-open.

Paul Towhey of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., told us he was leaving his options open.

PAUL TOWHEY: I haven’t signed on anybody nor have I eliminated anybody. I really want to have the chance to — to listen to them all, or hear as many as I can and then make an informed decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tiffany Anderson of Kingsport, Tenn., said she wasn’t in a hurry to decide either.

TIFFANY ANDERSON: I think people need to be a little bit more picky and more informed about who they put into government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who is seriously considering a run, said he’s hearing a similar message as he travels the country.

RICK SANTORUM (R), former U.S. Senator: I think most people see it that way. I think they have — they’re — they’re wanting to listen to what people have to say. The crowds that are coming to events for me are — are big, and they’re — you know, they’re — people are curious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pamela Punt of Maple Grove, Minn., said she was looking for someone with vision and leadership skills.

PAMELA SVEC PUNT: And we’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric. We’re going to hear a lot of ideas, but what is really the critical component is, what are they capable of taking action on?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Veteran CPAC participant Grover Norquist, who runs the group Americans for Tax Reform, said the lack of a clear front-runner isn’t a problem for his party.

GROVER NORQUIST, Americans For Tax Reform: It’s wide-open. And, in one sense, it’s very healthy for the modern conservative movement. Everybody thinking of running is broadly acceptable to the Reagan Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with so many choices, trying to narrow the field down to one candidate could have conservatives spinning their wheels for some time to come.