Conservatives picking 2012 GOP frontrunners

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh will deliver the keynote address at CPAC.
The Conservative Political Action Conference ends Saturday with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh delivering the keynote address and the naming of the winner of a poll for best 2012 GOP presidential candidate.

In the absence of a clear GOP leader, a political ad airing Friday put out by supporters of President Obama implies the conservative radio host has himself become the de-facto head of the Republican Party. The ad argues that the Republican leadership in Congress is following Limbaugh’s lead in opposing the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus package. “So who are Republican leaders listening to,” the announcer asks before the 30-second ad cuts abruptly to footage of Limbaugh saying “I want him [Obama] to fail.” It was paid for by Americans United for Change and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, two groups that supported Obama during the election and are advocating for his agenda. In response to the ad, the Republican National Committee said, “The Democrats are running a permanent campaign rather than doing the bipartisan work of governing.” Read about the new ad “These ads are part of the Democrats’ larger strategy to do something, anything, to try to take the focus off their massive spending binge,” RNC spokesman Alex Conant said. Watch: Who will lead the GOP ยป

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Limbaugh wasn’t on this year’s annual CPAC straw poll ballot, in which conference attendees vote on which politician should win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. The choices were: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist; former House speaker Newt Gingrich; former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; Texas Rep. Ron Paul; Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and “Undecided.” There’s also space on the ballot for a write-in candidate. The results, culled from the party’s most resolute activists, could go a long way in shoring up a presidential hopeful’s conservative resume, as was the case with Romney when he won the straw poll in 2007 for 2008. The eventual Republican nominee — Sen. John McCain — finished fifth in the 2007 vote, and lost to Romney in 2008 as conservatives at the conference expressed frustration that the Senate maverick was close to cinching up the nomination. CPAC attendees will also be able to vote on their approval of President Obama and Republicans in Congress. Meanwhile, throughout the conference, Republican leaders and rising stars have been taking turns at the podium. Pawlenty told the conference audience Saturday that Republicans must do a better job of reaching out to working-class voters, a group he said agrees with the GOP on most issues, from gun rights to health care to education. The problem, Pawlenty said, is that lower and middle income voters — a group he terms “Sam’s Club voters” — don’t believe Republicans “are for the working person.” He said the party must stress its commitment to job creation and market itself “with a feel and concern and tone and an understanding of the importance and the challenges of the working class of this country. “And it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our principles to do it,” Pawlenty said. Like most of the Republicans who have addressed the annual gathering of conservatives this week, Pawlenty characterized the White House economy recovery package as a “sprawling spending buffet.” The governor bemoaned the president’s budget plan, unveiled earlier this week, which predicted a $1.75 trillion deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. “A day or two later the Democrats convened a fiscal responsibility summit,” he said. “What’s next Are they going to have Rod Blagojevich convene an ethics summit” Pawlenty and his wife Mary also spoke Friday night to a closed-door reception for “Rebuild the Party,” a Web-based grassroots initiative to modernize the party. On Friday, Romney and Gingrich packed the ballroom. Romney delivered a speech that resembled, in both style and substance, his campaign stump speech of 2007 and early 2008, detailing his opposition to liberal judges, jihadists and higher taxes.

In criticizing Obama and House Democrats, Romney — often interrupted by standing ovations — made clear that he intends to remain a player in Republican politics as he eyes a potential presidential bid in 2012. Texas Rep. Ron Paul also drew a big crowd and lots of applause. Paul said the conservative movement has struggled to define what it means to be a conservative.