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'Tea party' litmus tests pull Republicans to right

Potential GOP presidential candidates appealed to the right at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Ron Paul won the straw poll.

February 12, 2011|By Paul West, Washington Bureau
  • John Curry of Alexandria, Va., and Aime Nickle of Austin, Texas, applaud as Ann Coulter is announced.
John Curry of Alexandria, Va., and Aime Nickle of Austin, Texas, applaud… (Cliff Owen, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — "Tea party" sentiment is pulling the Republican presidential contest to the right as would-be candidates appeal for support from the GOP's conservative base.

Tea party litmus tests were dominant 2012 themes as most of the presidential contenders addressed the nation's largest annual conservative conference, which ended Saturday. Competing for straw-poll votes from thousands of activists — who gave libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) first place — the potential candidates sought to outdo one another in expressing their disgust with a bloated government in Washington.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich demanded the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty urged Congress to vote down a higher debt limit. South Dakota Sen. John Thune accused the Obama administration of "trying to take over the Internet." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney asked the youthful convention crowd "to believe in the Constitution as it was written and intended by the Founders."

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels portrayed the ballooning national debt as an existential threat, "the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink." Like other potential candidates, he called for unleashing the domestic oil and gas industry to "drill and frack and lease" as part of a broader effort to reduce government regulation on private industry. Fracking, a process in which hydraulic drills break through dense rock to release natural gas, has prompted concerns about possible contamination of underground water supplies.

In line with their tea-party-inspired focus on fiscal conservatism, the 2012 contenders expressed strong support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, repeal of "Obamacare" and steep cuts in federal spending like those proposed by House Republicans last week at the insistence of tea-party-backed lawmakers.

Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, a tea party umbrella group, told delegates to the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, that the tea party movement had assumed government power in "a hostile takeover. But these are now the issues that define the Republican Party in Washington, D.C."

At the same time, though, this shift could complicate Republicans' efforts to build on recent election gains. Potentially at risk is the party's continued hold on many of the independent swing voters who were key to the GOP triumph in last fall's election, and even support from some moderate Republican voters.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, another potential 2012 contender, waved off such fears in a CPAC speech Saturday. He dismissed the idea that "the tea party is a problem for Republicans" as "the left whistling past the graveyard."

But moderate Republican lawmakers are already worried about a backlash against the increasingly sharp budget cuts being proposed at the insistence of their newly elected tea party colleagues. The latest national polls hint at the tea party's potential to fracture the GOP base. On the environment, for example, 2 out of 3 tea party Republicans favor spending cuts, while only about 1 in 4 non-tea-party Republicans agree, and almost 1 in 3 want to increase spending, according to a new public opinion survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Amid the self-congratulatory mood at the conservative gathering, some delegates complained privately that abortion and other social issues, dominant CPAC topics in the past, were being played down in an effort to paper over strains inside the conservative movement. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has started making appearances in early presidential primary states, warned about internal strife. "We cannot shun each other for 2012," she said.

National security, another traditional conservative concern, got little attention from the likely presidential candidates. The revolt against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, playing out on TV screens in public areas of the conference hotel, was not mentioned by any candidates except former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Paul, arguably the party's most prominent isolationist.

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, cautioned that Republican contenders ignore defense and foreign policy "at their own peril." And Patrick Caddell, a onetime Democratic pollster, told a CPAC audience that foreign policy could be the "secret issue" of 2012 and "very decisive" in the presidential contest.

More than 11,000 attendees, a record for the three-day event, cheered their favorites and participated in a straw poll that has had a poor predictive record in past presidential years. For the second year in a row, Paul finished first, with 30%, followed by Romney, with 23%. The rest were in single digits. More than 2 of every 5 of those participating in the poll said they wished the GOP had a better field of potential candidates.

The 15-person ballot included three conference no-shows: Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman.

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