Two years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry became a national laughingstock and effectively forfeited his presidential campaign when he flubbed an answer in a Republican debate with one unforgettable word.
But, on Friday, Perry was confident and energized. He was here for redemption. And he knew exactly what to say.
Speaking to a half-empty hotel ballroom at CPAC, Perry enthusiastically outlined the role federal government should play. Defend Americans, he said. Create prosperity.
“And what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays!” Perry bellowed. The line drew enthusiastic applause that cascaded into a standing ovation. And he kept going.
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, known by most as CPAC, is a venue that favors the underdog, and where potential frontrunners for the presidency avoid taking risks. This year was no different, and for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the confab afforded an opportunity to feed conservative Republicans the red meat they craved and expected.
Since Christie appeared side-by-side with President Obama on the Jersey Shore last fall, many conservatives have viewed him with severe skepticism -- but he gleefully bashed the president in their presence during his speech to CPAC on Thursday, perhaps in an effort to assuage those lingering misgivings.
Paul, an icon among the libertarian branch of the party, had less to prove but also played it safe in his speech, which focused on his favored themes of personal liberty and government overreach -- and was met with scattered chants of “President Paul.”
“Mr. President, we will not let you shred our Constitution!” Paul said.
CPAC’s greatest impact might be in providing an arena tailor-made for the political dark horse, where one speech can manufacture instant buzz among conservative Republican activists or rehabilitate a damaged brand.
Perry might have been one of the potential 2016 hopefuls who most outperformed expectations with his rousing 9 a.m. remarks, in which he called for “a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.
“I am here to say, we don’t have to accept recent history,” Perry said. “We just need to change the presidency.”
Perry is among those Republicans currently weighing a bid for the presidency in 2016 — and at CPAC, he was hardly alone.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential presidential candidate who was a Tea Party darling until he helped engineer a Senate plan for comprehensive immigration reform, seemed to recapture some enthusiasm from the conservative base with his speech Thursday, which re-established him as a strong voice on foreign policy.
“We have a president who believes that by the sheer force of his personality he could be able to shape global events. We have a president that believes that by going around the world and giving key speeches in key places, he can shape the behavior of other nations,” Rubio said. “We do not have the luxury of seeing the world the way we hope it would be. We have to see the world the way it is.”
And for two popular figures of the religious right, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum, CPAC was an ideal laboratory at which to test whether their cultural conservative messages still resonate. Both were enthusiastically received.
But Foster Friess, the GOP mega-donor who backed Santorum in 2012 and has said he will do so again should he run in 2016, and who met privately with Santorum on Friday, hinted that Santorum would turn more toward foreign policy in a future campaign.
“I think what will happen, now that he's been out in the business world a bit, is people won't constantly put him in the corner of a cultural conservative, and they'll realize how savvy he is on foreign relations,” Friess said. “He's got the fiscal conservatism, he's got the national security conservatism, and you might see something on the cultural front as well.”
That transition didn’t start Friday — when, instead, Santorum and others preached to the party congregants who, they hope, will spread their gospel through 2016.
An early glimpse of conservative opinion will come Saturday, when voting ends on CPAC’s “straw poll.”