POLITICS -- February 10, 2011 at 8:35 AM ET
CPAC Sets the Stage for '12 GOP Hopefuls
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich will be attending the Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
The list of confirmed speakers for this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) set to get underway Thursday reads like a who's who of potential Republican contenders for the party's 2012 nomination.
The gathering in Washington, a project of the American Conservative Union, is a big deal in an ordinary year, drawing up to 10,000 activists and dozens of leading conservative organizations. Every four years the event takes on the added significance of serving as the platform for Republicans considering a White House run to try out their message on the party faithful.
Over the next three days those in attendance will hear from the likes of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
The key speakers to watch for Thursday are former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Gingrich is expected to focus on energy policy in his remarks. His proposed strategy includes replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with a new entity called the "Environmental Solutions Agency," which would, according to Gingrich, achieve "better environmental outcomes through an emphasis on the transformative power of new technology and a collaborative approach with industry and state and local governments."
Santorum, meanwhile, will discuss "how each leg of the conservative stool -- social, fiscal and national security -- are interwoven and equally critical to our country's future."
Noticeably absent from the rundown of speakers are two names that show up on top of most polls of potential 2012 candidates, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Palin, who was offered to deliver the keynote speech Saturday evening, will skip the event for the fourth straight year. Event organizers said the absence was due to a scheduling conflict. (Don't miss Palin and Santorum mixing it up over her lack of attendance.)
Huckabee, who also declined an invitation to speak last year, has criticized the gathering as unrepresentative of the conservative movement.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said last month he would not attend this year's conference, siding with critics who feel the event has become too friendly with pro-gay and libertarian groups.
Several high-profile groups, including the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation, also decided not to participate, objecting to the inclusion of the gay conservative group, GOProud. The organization backed the recent repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays from serving openly in the military.
Conservative squabbling aside, the next three days will be almost entirely about the presidential hopefuls and how well their speeches resonate with the crowd. With less than a year until the Iowa caucuses, no candidate has emerged as the clear frontrunner. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found Huckabee leading with 21 percent, followed closely by Palin at 19 percent and Romney at 18 percent. The only other candidate with double-digit support was Gingrich at 10 percent.
2012-ERS BEGIN TO ANSWER QUESTIONS
The muddled GOP field can be attributed, in part, to the fact that all the names mentioned in the 2012 discussion still have some potential weaknesses that need to be addressed.
So just what are the questions hanging over each speaker that at least need to begin to be answered at this year's conference?
Mitt Romney: Can he convince Republican primary voters to overlook the similarities between the health care plan he enacted in Massachusetts and the national overhaul signed last year by President Obama? And can he prevent the establishment wing of the GOP to go shopping for an alternative candidate?
Tim Pawlenty: Can he present a rationale for his candidacy that goes beyond being a Republican governor in a Democratic state with a proven ability to win? Electability rarely successfully substitutes for rationale.
Mitch Daniels: How successful is he in smoothing over his relationship with social conservatives who are skeptical of the Indiana governor after he called for a "truce" on social issues? Social conservatives don't dominate the CPAC crowd, but still have a presence. However, social conservatives do dominate the Iowa Republican caucus-going electorate and Gov. Daniels will have to work to get right with them. Will CPAC provide the opportunity to do so? And can Gov. Daniels translate all the insider buzz about him into grassroots appeal?
Haley Barbour: Can he simultaneously toss red meat to the crowd in the ballroom while assuaging concerns among some party Pooh-Bahs that his Southern white male lobbyist profile is the best to post up against President Obama?
John Thune: Does he do anything in his speech to quash all the talk of his expected pass on the 2012 race? And does his vote for TARP audibly irk the crowd?
Newt Gingrich: Will an energy policy speech provide the requisite openings for the former House speaker to ignite a movement behind his candidacy? Will he demonstrate an ability to go beyond his comfortable think tank zone and provide an accessible vision for the faithful? What measure of rhetorical discipline will be on display?
Rick Santorum: With the absence of Palin and Huckabee and with Mike Pence out of the running, will he become the champion of social conservative causes? Will he spend most of his time standing on that leg of the stool?
Ron Paul: Can the winner of last year's CPAC straw poll, thanks to a large contingent of young, libertarian-minded participants, make it two years in a row, or will former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who favors legalizing marijuana, steal some of his thunder?
In what is probably the fastest career demise in Washington, Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., resigned Wednesday three hours after Gawker.com posted emails and a shirtless photo of the married congressman that he sent to a woman he met responding to a "Women for Men" post on Craigslist.
"It has been a tremendous honor to serve the people of Western New York. I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents. I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness," Lee said in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon.
In the emails, Lee lies about his age and occupation, but not his real name. The woman communicating with Lee, who is also a father, went to Gawker after she learned his true identity. When Gakwer asked him about the emails, Lee denied he sent the emails and claimed that his online identity had been stolen by hackers. As the story ricocheted around the Internet, Lee resigned, with his statement being read on the House floor. The entire process played out over just four hours, ending at approximately 6 p.m.
Lee wrote about the dangers of communicating with strangers on the Internet in a 2009 column in the Tonawanda News to promote his Student Protection Act of 2009.
"Responding to what may seem like a friendly e-mail or an appealing marketing offer can have serious consequences. Private information and images can so easily be transmitted to friends and strangers alike," he wrote.
Lee was serving his second term in Congress. The Buffalo News reports that people are already lining up to replace Lee.
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