On Thursday, several likely 2016 Republican presidential contenders filed in to the Conservative Political Action Conference to make their pitches to activists on the right. Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina all touted their conservative credentials, in hopes of impressing the faithful.
But the subtext of several appearances wasn't the hopefuls' strengths — but their weaknesses. Each of the likely candidates has at least one major flaw — and some have several. Their CPAC appearances provided a window into how they're trying to address those flaws. Some tried to show that the seeming problems with their candidacies didn't exist at all, while others tried to jiu jitsu their weaknesses into strengths. Who pulled it off?
The challenge: Chris Christie has had a bad year, and a very bad past few months. Jeb Bush has run circles around him in winning support from GOP establishment donors, hiring top-level staff, and (reportedly) raising money. Meanwhile, news from New Jersey about Bridgegate and other scandals, and bad fiscal and economic developments, not to mention a strange gaffe about vaccines, have cemented the perception among many that Christie is a hopelessly flawed candidate.
His response: In a twenty-minute Q&A session with talk radio host Laura Ingraham, Christie repeatedly argued that the media has given conservatives the wrong idea about him. Again and again, he trashed the media, suggesting that "when you do things that I've done, when you take on a lot of these special interests that they [the media] support, they'll kill you." He also argued that he's much more conservative than you might expect, bragging about how he proved that a pro-life Republican could win in the Northeast. "Don't believe what the media will tell you," he said.
Second, now that Christie has failed to win the establishment support for himself, he's trying to spin that to his advantage. Told that many in the media now believe the race is Bush's to lose, Christie responded, "If what happens is the elites in Washington make backroom deals to decide who the president's gonna be, then he's definitely the frontrunner. If the people of the United States decide to pick the next president of the United States, and they want someone who looks at them in the eye, connects with them, and is one of them? I'll do okay if I run."
Third, Christie tried to portray his fiery persona as just what Washington needs. When asked about his temper and specifically a past comment that a constituent should sit down and shut up, Christie answered, "Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up," to cheers and applause. "There should be more of that stuff in Washington, DC," he added. "Someone should say it's time to shut up."
The challenge: In contrast to Christie, Walker's had a good start to the year. He leads in some recent Iowa, New Hampshire, and national polls, and he's been doing such a good job establishing himself as the main conservative and electable alternative to Jeb Bush that some have deemed him the true frontrunner.
Yet there have been doubts about whether Walker is ready for the national stage. His speech delivery has often been stilted, and his non-answers to various press questions recently have raised eyebrows. Does Walker have enough charisma to rally conservatives to his side?
His response: Unlike Christie, who sought to assuage concerns through a sit-down Q&A, Walker's goal was to excite the activist crowd with an energetic speech. So he chose not to stand at the podium that was provided, instead walking around the stage, gesturing and playing off the crowd. He touted his blue-collar background and his conservative policy accomplishments, to frequent cheers.
Overall, Walker looked confident. He's still no Ted Cruz, but his speech was nonetheless enthusiastically received. And toward the end, there was even a bit of a spontaneous "moment," when Walker said Wisconsin was about to become a right-to-work state, and a protester began shouting. Walker yelled in response, "Those voices can't drown out the voices of millions of Americans who want us to stand up for the hardworking taxpayers!" The audience stood up and roared with applause.
However, there was another unscripted moment in which Walker likened dealing with Wisconsin union protesters to dealing with ISIS. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," he said. He walked back the comment soon afterward, but it revived some conservatives' fears that he's not quite ready for prime time.
The challenge: Though Cruz is loathed by the GOP establishment, conservative activists love him — and everyone agrees that he can give a great red meat speech. Concerns about his electability are his biggest problem. After 8 years of Obama, conservatives are eager to win back the White House — and to many, Cruz just seems too extreme to win a general election.
His response: Essentially, Cruz argued that he is the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, and that those foolish doubters would have impeded Reagan's rise. "It was 40 years ago at CPAC that President Reagan said the path to victory is not pale pastels but bold colors," he said, as some in the crowd shouted those last two words along with him. "I am convinced 2016 is going to be an election very much like 1980," he said.
Translation? Don't worry about electability, because the glorious GOP landslide is imminent. "It's worth remembering, when Reagan ran, Washington despised Reagan," he added. The subtext — that Cruz himself is similarly despised — was obvious.
The challenge: Having never held political office before, Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard, is obviously a longshot for the nomination. Many have speculated that she's truly running for vice president. Whatever the case, she has to prove that she's a credible, serious, informed leader, and not one of the self-promoters who've plagued GOP primaries recently.
Her response: Fiorina gave a strong speech that was enthusiastically received by the crowd. She focused on burnishing her foreign credentials, arguing that "I know Bibi Netanyahu," and "I know King Abdullah of Jordan," as a way to critique the Obama Administration's policies in the Middle East. No "U-beki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" for her. She also repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton, telling her to "please, name an accomplishment," and arguing that traveling the world doesn't count as one. Essentially, Fiorina was arguing that a long political resume doesn't necessarily mean a candidate is qualified — and suggesting that her short one shouldn't disqualify her.