Mitch McConnell strode out onto the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday morning, packing heat.
The Senate Minority Leader finds himself in an odd position at CPAC. For one, he's the Republican leader in the Senate and stands to take over as the majority leader next year if some of the audience's favored candidates win control of blue seats in November.
But McConnell is also a five-term senator whose career has largely been characterized by the kind of earmarking that conservatives did away with following the tea-party wave of 2010. And he's facing a challenge from a tea party acolyte, albeit an underfunded one, in his home state of Kentucky this year.
It's almost no wonder that McConnell walked onto the stage this morning with a rifle in hand, which he quickly passed to Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a hero among fiscal hawks. That moment marked the only time that the audience cheered loudly during McConnell's five minutes on stage.
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McConnell's speech was packed with red meat, focused largely on deriding liberals, President Obama, and the media–popular rhetorical tactics at CPAC. "The president of the United States is treating our Constitution worse than a place-mat at Denny's," he said to mild applause.
Given the context of his appearance here, McConnell spent little time discussing his own career, focusing instead on taking over the Senate with a Republican majority. "I won't let you down [as majority leader]," McConnell promised the audience. "I will lead it with integrity.… We will debate our ideas openly, we will vote without fear.… The best conservative ideas for lifting Americans out of poverty will get a hearing."
But McConnell's 30 years in Washington weren't lost on an audience that has largely favored upstart tea-party candidates over "career politicians."
"It was a speech by a politician," one attendee noted wryly.