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2016 GOP hopefuls stretch to prove conservative mettle for base

Ideological purity still at a premium at the annual CPAC, which attracts hundreds of party faithful

OXON HILL, Md. — The 2016 crop of prospective Republican presidential candidates auditioned for the approval of their party’s base this week, at turns flaunting and defending conservative bona fides to hundreds of activists gathered for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

CPAC — which brings together the many disparate, sometimes warring strains of the Republican Party under one roof, from tea partyers to libertarians to social conservatives — has long been a mandatory pilgrimage for GOP hopefuls looking to prove themselves to the party faithful and calibrate their campaign messages.

This year’s CPAC was no less of a test, with ideological purity placed at a premium in advance of the GOP nominating contests next year. It is, of course, often a treacherous political path to walk as Republican candidates try to thread the needle of being conservative enough to win hard-line primary and caucus voters without alienating general election voters come November.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a formidable force in the nascent Republican field with his recognizable name and network of deep-pocketed donors, arguably had the greatest distance to cover with conservatives, many of whom are skeptical of his family’s political legacy as well as his more centrist positions, particularly on immigration.

He sought to reassure CPAC attendees, some of whom jeered earlier in the day at the mention of his name, while holding firm to his policy stances. 

"For those that made a 'boo' sound, I’m marking you down as neutral, and I want to be your second choice," he said. "I describe myself as a practicing, reform-minded conservative."

Bush said he continues to support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants — anathema to many conservatives — as well as strong border enforcement. He also said he has no regrets about pushing to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and allowing them to pay in-state tuition fees during his tenure as governor. 

He defended Common Core state educational standards — another frequent punching bag on the right — as necessary to improving student achievement. 

And he pointed to the more conservative aspects of his record, such as expanding school choice, vetoing a total of $2 billion from the state budget during his tenure and ending affirmative action in university admissions and awarding state contracts.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a rising star in the GOP after triumphing in his bruising battle with public sector unions in 2011, had among the most enthusiastic receptions at CPAC. He ticked off a litany of legislative victories, including passing a voter ID law, enacting concealed-carry legislation, defunding Planned Parenthood, passing lawsuit reform, lowering property taxes and ending teacher tenure.

"We did it without compromising," he said. "We stood up and said what we were gonna do, and then we did it."

In a moment that elicited some cringes, when asked how he would counter the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as commander-in-chief, Walker alluded to his political experience in Wisconsin. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said.

Among those preparing for a possible 2016 run, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was the most willing to break the mold, urging conservatives to concern themselves not only with the encroachments of government in the economy and health care but also in civil liberties and privacy rights.

In a departure from the topics most frequently touched on at CPAC, in his remarks he sharply criticized the National Security Agency's wide-ranging surveillance programs and referred to Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was held in a Rikers Island jail in New York for three years without a trial for stealing a backpack. 

"We have to say to people like Kalief Browder that Big Government is not only a problem as far as regulations and taxes — Big Government is a problem for sometimes not giving justice to those who deserve it," Paul said. 

Even as many of the possible 2016 candidates — including Walker, Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — attacked President Barack Obama for not taking adopting a more aggressive strategy against ISIL, Paul warned of the dangers and ripple effects of prolonged military ventures abroad. 

"At home, conservatives understand that government is the problem, not the solution, but as conservatives we should not succumb to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow become successful abroad," he said. "I envision an America with a national defense unparalleled, undefeated and unencumbered by nation building." 

Other candidates, however, used their time on the CPAC main stage to disavow past positions not hewing to party orthodoxy.

Chris Christie stepped away from his support 2010 support of Common Core, saying he regretted enrolling New Jersey in the program in exchange for federal dollars.

Considered a relative moderate on issues like same-sex marriage and gun control, he noted that he was the first New Jersey governor to attend an anti-abortion rally on the steps of the state Capitol and vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood out of the budget five times.

“People make certain assumptions about you because you’re from New Jersey and a Republican from New Jersey,” he said. “What they should do is look at my record. When you look at my record on those issues, it has been strong and resolute.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio continued to distance himself from past efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. He was one among eight senators who in 2013 endorsed a bill that would have included a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. At CPAC, he said it’s necessary to secure the border before any other policy debate can begin.

“What I’ve learned — you can’t even have a conversation until people believe and know that future illegal immigration is under control,” he said. “That’s the biggest lesson of the last two years.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, unabashedly declared himself the most conservative of the bunch, positioning himself to the right of his party’s congressional leadership, whom he lampooned for capitulating on funding for the Department of Homeland Security. Republican lawmakers initially tied DHS funding to rescinding Obama’s executive actions on immigration but, facing an imminent shutdown, separated the issues into two bills. 

“Republican leadership is cutting a deal with [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid and Democrats to give in to executive amnesty,” Cruz said. “If you have a candidate that has stood up against Democrats, that’s great. But when have you been able to stand against Republicans? When have you been willing to stand with the people?”  

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