Updated at 12:45 p.m. on February 13.
Unless Donald Trump or Ron Paul run for president -- and for what it’s worth, the former said the latter has “zero’’ chance of winning -- the most daring member of the Republican field may be the buttoned-down midwestern budget nerd, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana.
“Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers," Daniels said, delivering one of the few head-turning lines of the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this week.
Other than Daniels, few of the potential Republican candidates took risks or veered off script during the CPAC pageant, the first opportunity in the 2012 election cycle to size up Obama’s likely competition.
The gathering of more than 10,000 conservative activists did little to winnow the field. No one made a major gaffe -- or brought down the house, with the exception of Paul, a Texas congressman and perennial favorite among the conservative grassroots, as his resounding victory in CPAC's presidential straw poll underscored. From former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, presumably the front-running contender, to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., the latest White House explorer, each potential candidate presented themselves as a credible nominee.
“Nobody fell down the stairs,’’ said Grover Norquist, a CPAC veteran and the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Everyone acquitted themselves well. Everyone was on their best behavior.’’
Except, of course, for Trump, the celebrity businessman who openly mocked Paul from the stage. His criticism would mean more if he were considered a serious candidate himself.
One of the biggest questions looming over the event was whether Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, would address his health care reform plan’s uncomfortable similarities with the much-maligned “Obamacare.’’ He did not.
“At some point, he has to admit he made a mistake,’’ argued James Higgins, a hedge fund manager who co-chairs a monthly gathering of conservative donors and media in New York. “How much longer is he going to stand by a bad idea?’’
None of his likely competitors took chances, either. By the third day of the conference, the speeches had become predictable: rail against big government, condemn the national debt, needle President Obama, and end on a positive note touting America's greatness.
Other than John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, no one made more than a passing reference to the dramatic upheaval in Egypt, making the GOP field look strangely insulated from current events.
If Romney had the most to lose, Pawlenty, who underwhelmed the crowd at last year’s conference, had the most to gain.
“The name of the game is exceeding expectations, and the winner by that standard easily is Tim Pawlenty,’’ said conservative consultant Keith Appell, who watched the speeches online. “He connected, he showed, and people began to see him cut a presidential figure.
While the Republican presidential contest looks as unpredictable as ever, CPAC made one thing clear: The tea party is winning. Social issues like gun control, abortion, gay rights, and immigration were barely mentioned. Only former Sen. Rick Santorum delivered a defense of social conservativism, saying “those are the issues that matter.’’
It was left to Daniels, who served as President George W. Bush’s White House budget director and who has drawn fire for urging a GOP "truce" on social issues, to sum up the battle cry of this year's CPAC conference. The “new Red menace,” he said, is the national debt.
Al Cardenas, the newly elected chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the focus on fiscal issues was appropriate during a recession. It’s smart politics, too.
“Frankly,’’ he said, “it’s the broadest common denominator for our conservative message.’’