Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
On Friday Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich each addressed the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC.
Rick Santorum, fresh off his triple victory in Tuesday's non-binding caucuses and primaries, took the stage first, and used his moment to take shots at the consistent front-runner Mitt Romney.
Some of Santorum's remarks were more thinly veiled than others.
"We will no longer abandon and apologize for the policies and principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November," Santorum said, touting what he called his consistent conservative record: namely, opposing health care mandates in an era when his current opponents were favoring them.
"I know you, you know me," Santorum said. "That's important."
The implication there was for Republicans not to let Romney's perceived electability against Obama overshadow the blemishes in his conservative pedigree. And to remember that whole authenticity, flip-flopping thing that's dogged Romney from day one. Santorum raised the specter of voters in the general election taking cues from an unenthusiastic Republican base.
"Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party that the party's not excited about?" Santorum asked, incredulous.
Mitt Romney hardly talked about his opponents. His speech was all about assuaging the very concerns Rick Santorum had brought up that morning.
"I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," Romney said. As governor of Massachusetts, he "did some of the very things conservatism is designed for."
At this point, Romney's pitch seems to be not even mentioning the health care mandate, or how he changed his mind on gay marriage, or any parts of his record that Republicans take issue with. He's purely focused on his accomplishments as governor that were in spite of having a Democratic legislature: claiming over 800 vetos, saying he kept Massachusetts from becoming "the Las Vegas of gay marriage," and the like.
"I served in government, but I didn't inhale," Romney said, earning laughs.
Toward the end of his speech, Romney tried to remind CPAC that he was the guy who'd "never worked a day in Washington," unlike the rest of the Republican field. "I don't have old scores to settle or decades of cloakroom deals I have to defend," he said, which sure sounds like it's directed at Newt Gingrich.
Newt Gingrich gave what we've come to expect from the former Speaker: tons of information, delivered forcefully and with so much detail that by the time you're ready to evaluate what he's said about one thing, he's moved on to the next.
Sounding very much like a professor, Gingrich got perhaps the most energetic applause of the day.
"By the time Barack Obama lands in Chicago, we'll have repudiated 40 percent of his government," Gingrich said, slipping into that post-election reverie where he's already won the nomination and gone on to defeat Obama.
Gingrich offers the most specifics of the three candidates at CPAC today, for sure. He'll tell you all the laws he's going to repeal on day one of his administration—Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, the list goes on—and even what time they're going to the shredder. He'll explain the conservative theory that corporations will actually pay their taxes if the rates are lower. He'll remind you that he left office with an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. And that his bold ideas often get him into hot water with his party, despite being at times the only truly conservative ones, in Gingrich's mind.
"We need to teach the Republican establishment a lesson," the historian concluded.