Conservatives check out possible candidates


POSTED: Saturday, February 20, 2010

WASHINGTON » For all the talk of Sarah Palin these days, there are two Republicans who are already laying the groundwork to run for president in 2012 — Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

Both appeared before a crowd of influential conservatives this week to offer a portrait of how they plan to run against President Barack Obama, and seek to harness the surge of energy from the Tea Party movement, which tends to be suspicious of establishment Republicans like them.

Romney and Pawlenty offered full-throated endorsements of the positions of most concern to attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference. They attacked Obama, saying that he had tried to foist a big-spending government on an unreceptive public, that he was weak in his dealings with foreign leaders and that he was coddling terrorism suspects. Romney went so far as to present Obama as a failed president.

Yet there were differences between these two men that emerged over two days and gave the party a chance to compare them. Romney made little or no mention of social issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage, after having taken intense criticism during the 2008 campaign for moving rightward to head off conservatives' concerns.

But Pawlenty offered supportive language that was well understood by opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage, talking about “;the sanctity of life”; and “;traditional marriages.”; He also rejected any kind of secular view of government as he listed “;four ideas that I think should carry us forward.”;

“;The first one is this: God's in charge,”; he said. “;There are some people who say, 'Oh, you know, Pawlenty, don't bring that up. You know it's politically incorrect.' Hogwash.”;

Aside from a few activists and the Revolutionary War re-enactor who has become a regular at Tea Party events, as well as mainstream Republican leaders who have embraced the movement, the Tea Party might have been here more in spirit than numbers. That social issues came up at all — Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican conference, urged the crowd to embrace “;traditional moral values without apology”; — showed how different this was from a Tea Party event, which usually tends to stick to economic issues.

Yet Romney and Pawlenty are well aware of Palin's appeal to the Tea Party movement, and they went to great lengths to cast their lots with this new power. When he spoke on Thursday, Romney was introduced by Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who captured his seat with significant Tea Party backing last month, a victory that made him something of a hero here.

And the normally mild-mannered Pawlenty offered fiery remarks on Friday that could have been delivered at a Tea Party meeting.

“;When you listen to the elites and the pundits talk about the Tea Party movement, or they talk about us as conservatives, they may not always say it explicitly,”; he said. “;But implicit in their comments are, you know, maybe they're not as sophisticated, because a lot of them didn't go to the Ivy League schools. Or you know, they're from places like the heartland, not — you know, they don't hang out at our Chablis-drinking, Brie-eating parties in San Francisco.”;

“;And the implication is, you know, we're kind of bumpkins,”; Pawlenty said.

Both men sought to outdo each other with attacks on Obama. And both even turned to the same source material — the Winter Olympics — for jokes about the president's problems.

Romney: “;In case you didn't hear the late-breaking news, the gold medal in the downhill given to American Lindsey Vonn has been stripped. It was determined that President Obama is going downhill faster than she is!”;

Pawlenty: “;If government spending were an Olympic sport, he would be a repeat gold medalist.”;

In the past, presidential candidates have approached this conference cautiously: It put presidential candidates at risk of moving so far right to curry favor that their remarks could be used against them as they courted the center in a general election.

There was no ambivalence this year as Romney and Pawlenty sought to pay tribute to the movement and embrace its favored causes.

“;The president accuses us of being the party of 'no,”;' Romney said. “;It's as if he thinks that saying 'no' is by definition a bad thing. In fact, it is right and praiseworthy to say no to bad things. It is right to say no to cap and trade, no to card check, no to government health care and no to higher taxes. My party should never be a rubber stamp for rubber check spending.”;

Pawlenty credited the audience with bringing the conservative movement back from the brink. And he warned, reflecting a recurrent complaint here, that elected Republican officials could no longer accept the backing of conservatives and then abandon their beliefs.

“;If we give our team members and leaders the jersey of conservative, and they are going to lead and govern under the banner of conservative, then they need to go to Washington, D.C., and walk the walk,”; Pawlenty said.

Kate Zernike contributed reporting to this story.