OXON HILL, Md. — Potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates regaled conservative activists with a preview of the next presidential campaign Thursday, sticking to long-held principles while largely avoiding incendiary social issues.
They heeded the message of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “We don’t get to govern if we don’t win. Let us come out here resolved not only to stand for our principles but resolved to win elections again.”
Each of the hopefuls delivered 10- to 15-minute messages to nearly 2,000 people gathered for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in this Washington suburb, and no clear frontrunner was apparent. Those in the audience have a huge influence in the Republican Party, since they tend to be more sophisticated activists well-schooled in organizing and fund-raising.
Participants are voting in a straw poll for their 2016 favorite, and results will be announced Saturday. More potential candidates are to appear Friday, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida got the most enthusiastic response. Christie, never a favorite of this group, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana were received politely. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas stirred more passion. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin., already regarded as a hero because of his budget-cutting ideas, tried to be conciliatory.
Republican officials have warned the party risks being seen as too intolerant and not diverse enough, and the candidates got the message. Rarely did abortion, gay marriage or other social issues come up.
Christie challenged the idea that Republicans don’t want dissenters in the party.
What about Democrats, he asked? How often do anti-abortion Democrats become prominent in the party? Rarely, he said.
“They’re the party of intolerance,” he said. “Not us.”
Ryan urged a gentler approach to wooing voters. “We have our disagreements . . . they can get a little passionate,” he said. He maintained the disagreements have “been over tactics. So I think we should give each other the benefit of the doubt.”
Cruz railed against big government and tried to rally younger voters.
“If you were to sit down and hammer the living daylights out of young people, you couldn’t do better than the Obama administration,” he said. “Obamacare is a massive wealth transfer.”
“He has such charisma and comes off as so genuine,” Jane Lawler-Savitske, a retiree from Washington’s Virginia suburbs, said of Cruz.
Christie, the rare Republican who has been successful in a largely Democratic state, urged the crowd to not just talk about what they’re against. “We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for,” he urged.
Christie has been dogged recently by news about how his aides were instrumental in closing part of the access to the George Washington Bridge. That didn’t come up, and few mentioned it in the halls.
Christie faces other trouble. His embrace of President Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy clobbered New Jersey in 2012 is remembered with disdain by conservatives, who also believe he didn’t fight hard enough for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Christopher Fromme, a Pittsburgh rental property owner, wore a T-shirt touting former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska for president in 2016. “If Christie somehow gets the nomination, even though I’m a Republican, I’ll bail,” he said. “He’s not a conservative.”
Jindal used his talk largely to discuss education. More choice is needed, he said, as he described in detail Louisiana’s efforts.
“We know the needs of our children better than bureaucrats in Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C.,” he said. Denying children such choice, Jindal said, is “cynical, immoral and hypocritical.”
Rubio stirred the crowd by insisting “there is nothing moral or acceptable about governments that sponsor terrorism as a tool of statecraft _ and we should never accept any of these things as a legitimate form of government.”
Rubio described a foreign policy “deeply rooted in our values and moral principles.” The United States, he said, “must be involved in leading the world. . . . We cannot ignore the reality of who we are.”
The line got the most enthusiastic applause of any of the five speakers.