What Secrets Did Potential GOP Presidential Candidates Reveal at CPAC?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference served as an unofficial kick-off for the 2016 presidential race, with the prime potential candidates fighting for attention. Although Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) came out on top, according to the Washington Times/CPAC presidential preference straw poll, the much-talked-about Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) is gaining on him. Both were well ahead of other potential Republican candidates for 2016. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took third place, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson came in fourth, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fifth. So what did we learn about these potential presidential candidates?

Walker accidentally compares American protesters to ISIL

According to the Atlantic, Walker received an “overwhelmingly positive response” from the crowd at the conference. But one comment he made didn’t go unnoticed. While discussing his ability to respond to the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Walker made a pretty big leap in relating his experience with political fights with labor unions  to potentially being able to thwart the militant group. “I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil,” he said. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Former Texas Governor and potential competitor for the 2016 Republican nomination Rick Perry criticized Walker’s comparison in an interview after Walker’s speech. “These are Americans,” Perry said. “You are talking about, in the case of ISIS, people who are beheading individuals and committing heinous crimes, who are the face of evil. To try to make the relationship between them and the unions is inappropriate.” Walker later said to the Wisconsin State Journal, “I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling this difficult situation is the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with.”

Bush still not conservative enough

Bush is certainly a polarizing candidate, and this was evident at CPAC, where the attendees were probably more conservative in politics than the former Florida governor. People were not afraid to cry for “no more Bushes,” and according to the Washington Times, Bush was booed by the crowd when his name was announced in the poll results.

Despite the struggle, the Washington Post said Bush held his own at the conference. “Bush was energetic — maybe due at least in part to nervousness in facing a testy crowd — and informed,” the Post said. “He refused to back down — particularly on immigration — from positions that he knew would be unpopular with the crowd. He insisted that Republicans were good at opposing things but bad at ‘being for things.’ He was composed. He was up to the moment. He looked, in a word, presidential.”

GOP members’ fear that Bush is not conservative enough comes from his positions on issues like immigration, which he addressed at the conference. “The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people,” he said, referencing his gubernatorial decision to grant drivers licenses to immigrants living in Florida illegally. “We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits … where they make a contribution to our society.”

Bush might not be able to win over the most staunch conservatives, but made an attempt to convince them that he could do the job. “I’m marking you down as a neutral and I want to be your second choice if I decide to go beyond this,” Bush said to a heckler during the conference.

RealClearPolitics still ranks Bush as the No. 2 pick for a Republican 2016 presidential candidate, with 14.7% of the poll, only 0.3% behind frontrunner Walker.

Paul wins poll, talks national defense

This CPAC marked the third time Paul won the straw poll at the conference, but his share of the vote did drop from 31% in 2014 to 25.7% this year. He was still very well received, according to supporters.

“You have to say that Rand Paul did what he had to do when he came here,” said Charlie Gerow, a board member of the American Conservative Union, to the Washington Times. “He fired up his passionate supporters who were out in number as they always are, and he maintained equilibrium with them and held them solid.

Also talking about the threat of ISIL, Paul brought out the classic tough conservative rhetoric. “Without question, we must now defend ourselves and American interests,” he said. Concerning federal spending, Paul said, “for me, the priority is always national defense.”

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