Foreign policy fires up crowd at CPAC

More than a dozen Republicans considering presidential runs spoke at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the country’s largest gathering of conservative activists. Fresh from the conference, political director Domenico Montanaro joins Gwen Ifill to take stock of this year’s CPAC.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Conservative activists flock to suburban Washington every year to join forces, streamline their message, and provide an audience for the men and women interested in running for president.

    This year is no different. Over two days, potential Republican candidates are making their case at the Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC.

    NewsHour political director Domenico Montanaro was there.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Welcome to the Republican race for 2016.

    SEN. TED CRUZ, (R) Texas: This is a room full of patriots.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Texas Senator Ted Cruz is one of more than a dozen Republicans thinking about running for president who spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. He fired up the crowd with tough talk on terrorism.

  • SEN. TED CRUZ:

    We need a commander in chief who will actually stand up and defend the United States of America. We cannot defeat radical Islamic terrorism with a president who is unwilling to utter words radical Islamic terrorism.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Despite trailing in early polls, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie showed some of the defiance he's famous for.

    GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) New Jersey: If I decide to run for president, I'm not worried about what polls say 21 months before we're going to elect the president of the United States. If I decide to run, let me tell you one thing. I will run a hard, fighting campaign, where I will fight for hardworking taxpayers of this country. And I will take my chances on me. I have done pretty well so far.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    For conservatives looking for a fresh face, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has never held a political office, is a Tea Party favorite.

  • BEN CARSON:

    We need to move in a very different direction. We need to understand what true compassion is in order to reach out to individuals who think that maybe being dependent is reasonable as long as they feel safe.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    The candidate with recent momentum is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

    GOV. SCOTT WALKER, (R) Wisconsin: We understand that people create jobs, not the government, and we're going to help the people of this great country create more jobs, create more careers, create more opportunity.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Many conservatives believe Walker is best positioned to give Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the current front-runner, a strong challenge. CPAC faithful will have a chance to hear him tomorrow.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Domenico is back from the conference, and he joins me now.

    So, Chris Christie has a point, 20 months out. What was today's conference supposed to accomplish?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, it's really a first chance for a lot of these candidates to be able to woo some of these activists that they're going to hope might be on some of their campaigns in 2016.

    It also gives us, frankly, an opportunity to see what some of their messaging might be like. And speaking of Christie, it really struck me, as he's trying to really try to own that blue-collar message, which is new for him, I think, and — but he also saw in 2012 that worked for Rick Santorum to be somebody who could really capture the blue-collar message. It helped that he was running against somebody who was worth a quarter-billion dollars.

    But I think that that's something that we learned today that we're going to hear a little bit more from Christie as he struggles in the polls.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We're hearing in Washington lots of conversation, for instance, about immigration reform and other domestic policy issues. What dominated the discussion there?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, I mean, there were some domestic issues.

    I mean, we heard about repealing Obamacare, which is something that has actually come up — had came up way more in these CPAC discussions. But I was actually fascinating by the fact that the hawks are back in town.

    Foreign policy really dominated a lot of the conversation and fired up the crowd more so than…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For instance?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    So, for example, I mean, Cruz, in that bite that we heard, he was saying, the way you fight ISIS or fight these terrorists, the Islamic State group, is you kill them. You don't try to offer them jobs, referring to a State Department employee who had mentioned that the economy is one of the issues.

    Carly Fiorina, for example, not somebody who you would think as a big foreign policy hawk. You would think of her more of a business person, having run Hewlett-Packard. And she mostly talked about foreign policy, really got the crowd going.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And lots of love for Bibi Netanyahu, who is coming to this give this controversial speech next week.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Right. And that's next week.

    And Scott Walker even mentioned Netanyahu, and we need a president who is going to stand with one of our staunchest allies as well.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Did it seem like they were already running against Hillary Clinton?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, I mean, that's part of it, for sure.

    And there were several candidates who definitely mentioned Hillary Clinton. I think Barack Obama is still the bigger lightning rod for these folks. Now, that said, we didn't hear another single candidate's name mentioned when it comes to 2016. Clearly, they have their sights set on Hillary.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Behind the scenes, who is working it hardest today? Tomorrow, we see Jeb Bush and the others, but who was working it hardest today?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, I thought it was interesting being down there.

    The most professionalization around the conference looked like it was from Senator Cruz, really. This is somebody who, if he does well in the straw poll — the and straw poll doesn't generally say much — if he does well, then he will be back in the conversation.

    There were professional posters of him that were put out for people, buttons that looked like real campaign buttons from maybe a generation ago, and — because now everyone has got Twitter handles, right? It's not about buttons anymore.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    But he was also mentioning text my campaign or text me and text Constitution. And so him and Walker were really doing a lot of that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Domenico Montanaro, thanks again.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Thank you.

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