Mitt Romney, the serious businessman known for his sober campaign style, has lightened up.
He skewered President Obama on Friday, like just about every other speaker at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference. But he did it with a touch of mockery that had largely been missing from his public persona in his last incarnation as a presidential candidate.
“He guaranteed unemployment would stay below 8 percent,” Romney said (actually, there was no such guarantee, just a prediction by an administration official). But then came the punch line:
“What’s next, ‘Let them eat cake?’ Excuse me, ‘Let them eat organic cake?’”
This followed some other one-liners delivered as if Romney were sitting on Jay Leno’s couch. Obama had shaken up his White House after his Chicago-born chief of staff left by bringing in a “fresh face” from Chicago named “Daley.”
CPAC is a high-profile dog-and-pony show for potential 2012 candidates, and the former Massachusetts governor, who is clearly running again, used the occasion to unveil a retooled stump speech.
There were plenty of serious lines—that “an uncertain president” had made the world “more dangerous,” in part by signing a “one-sided nuclear treaty” with the Russians—but the emotional heart of the speech was the former chief executive’s description of the country’s 15 million unemployed as “President Obama’s Hooverville.” The joblessness, which Romney of course blamed on “the most expensive failed social experiment in modern history,” is “a moral tragedy of epic proportions,” he declared.
And this was interesting: I didn’t hear Romney talk much in 2008 about his dad. But at CPAC, he described George Romney as a man who started out selling aluminum paint and went on to found American Motors and become Michigan’s governor—embracing the business legacy that could be a key selling point for the younger Romney in a recession-themed campaign.
(Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also began his speech with humorous zingers about Obama. “I’m not one to question his birth certificate,” Pawlenty said, “but don’t you wonder what planet he’s from?”)
As Romney was speaking, television screens outside the ballroom were filled with the news that Hosni Mubarak was finally stepping down. It was Mubarak’s decision to cling to power on Thursday that provided an opening to another possible White House contender, Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker seized on media reports quoting U.S. officials, especially CIA Director Leon Panetta, as saying they expected Mubarak to resign by nightfall.
"I don't understand why the director of the CIA is saying something that is clearly not true," Gingrich said. "The idea of intelligence used to be to have the intelligence to be quiet…This is the most amateurish foreign policy I have seen I think in my lifetime."
On a day when denouncing Democrats was the price of admission, Newt Gingrich packed in more prickly phrases per paragraph than anyone within shouting distance of a microphone.
Gingrich was back at CPAC, 36 years after speaking at the group's second Washington meeting, which has since become the signature gathering of the American right and an obligatory stop for possible presidential candidates, a swelling group that includes the former Georgia lawmaker.
On a day when the faithful also heard from Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld (whose receipt of an award prompted a small walkout), Gingrich generated the most news on Thursday.
After entering a packed ballroom to the strains of "Eye of the Tiger," the former House speaker said the administration poses "a fundamental threat to freedom" by "centralizing power" in Washington. He said Obama's team is "anti-job," "anti-small business" and guilty of "utter, total hypocrisy" on offshore oil drilling. And, he said, "this is an administration that doesn't want to tell us who wants to kill us."
“What’s next, ‘Let them eat cake?’ Excuse me, ‘Let them eat organic cake?’” Romney asked.
Perhaps the greatest insult, the former House speaker suggested Thursday, was that Time magazine had recently paired Obama and Ronald Reagan on the cover. "I hate to tell this to our friends at MSNBC and elsewhere: Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan," he said.
The CPAC shindig is part carnival, part networking function and part ideological pep rally, spread across a sprawling Marriott in Northwest Washington. It is also an enormous bazaar where organizations from the Eagle Forum to the John Birch Society to the Weekly Standard peddle their wares. "I Am a Luce Lady," says one banner featuring a picture of Ann Coulter. Along the back wall, a cacophony of voices rises as G. Gordon Liddy and other talk radio hosts speak simultaneously into their mikes.
Gingrich is hardly the only potential White House candidate on the schedule. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, broke from the usual GOP script when he criticized the duration of jobless benefits. "If you give people 99 weeks of unemployment, failure is simply not an option," he said. "I know that sounds tough."
Santorum also castigated Obama for not saying "that jihadism is evil," for not calling for the Iranian regime to resign during that country's street protests, and because "he sides with the protestors" in Egypt.
Was Santorum saying that America should stand by the Mubarak regime? "I'm not saying we shouldn't side with the protestors," he added, "but what message are we sending—that when things get tough, we walk away?" It wasn't clear whether he was arguing that the administration should continue to stand by Egypt's embattled strongman.
The health care law seems to be the most reliable applause line at the conference. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got a cheer for saying that the GOP won't stop "until Obamacare goes the way of Hillarycare."
The day began with an animated Michele Bachmann slamming the president for "socialism," "bailouts," and "the monstrosity called Obamacare"—but she also tailored her message to the mostly young audience.
"We're gonna party!" bellowed the Minnesota congresswoman, who is hosting an evening reception. "Come on, come all—the bar tab is mine. You're all welcome—all 11,000 of you."
Then she had a moment of fiscal responsibility. There would be, she added, "a one-drink limit."
The tea party favorite, employing some creative math projections, warned college students that if conservatism doesn't triumph in 2012, "70 to 75 percent of your income will be taken away by the government in your peak earning years." (She added that she wasn't trying to "scare" anyone.)
What's more, said Bachmann, America would become Greece, cap and trade would "destroy the future," and there are "threats to the moral grounding of this nation."
Perhaps, but most of those at the conference seem to be having a rollicking good time.
Take, for instance, William Temple, a white-bearded man from Georgia who displayed an uncanny knack for attracting television cameras. Perhaps that's because he was dressed in full revolutionary garb, from his tricorner hat to his yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Temple informed anyone who would listen that "the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy—none of these departments is supposed to be controlled by the federal government, according to the Constitution." (Temple described himself as a grass-roots activist who doesn't want any of the organized tea party groups speaking for him.)
If any of the potential presidential candidates is generating a groundswell of support, it wasn't apparent from chatting with those in attendance.
Aaron Gardner, a student from Troy, Ala., says hearing Bachmann was "worth the trip" because "she pushed me into getting more involved in this movement."
As for the 2012 campaign, he's "excited" about Rand Paul, the newly elected Kentucky senator, but thinks Mitt Romney has the best shot at winning. "What worries me about Mitt Romney," Gardner says, "is the health care situation in Masschusetts when he was governor"—the plan Romney enacted that includes a mandate to buy insurance coverage.
Paula Bedner, a lawyer from Oak Hill, Va., is concerned that overspending will make the country "deteriorate into Greece," but isn't sure which candidate to back because "I do think Barack Obama is a good campaigner." When pressed, Bedner said she likes Sarah Palin, who has "been demonized unmercifully because people are afraid of her appeal."
• Eleanor Clift: The Republicans’ CPAC MisfireAaron McGuffin, a Louisville student sporting a Ron Paul button, is dismissive of any potential candidate other than his hero. Gingrich? "He had his time in the '90s." Romney, who is slated to speak on Friday? "Have you heard about Romneycare? Good God." Sarah Palin? "She's mostly lip service," McGuffin said. "She's kind of incendiary. I don't think she's doing much to reach over to the other side."
Andrew Breitbart, the conservative activist who runs BigGovernment.com, says the CPAC presidential straw poll is important—"unless the Ron Paul people stuff the ballot"—but that much of what goes on here is "political theater."
Candidates "are trying to get traction and emerge as a star," Breitbart says. "I don't care as much about that. I care about gay British alt-rock from the '80s."
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.