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GOP stars predict comeback at CPAC

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana says he embraces the "Party of No" label that Democrats have tried to pin on the GOP.
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana says he embraces the "Party of No" label that Democrats have tried to pin on the GOP.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Rep. Michele Bachmann says President Obama leading U.S. into state of "decline"
  • Republicans hope to capitalize on voter frustration, make gains in 2010 midterm elections
  • Complete CPAC coverage on the CNN Political Ticker
  • Follow all of the CPAC speakers and reporters: @CNNPolitics/CPAC

(CNN) -- Confident conservative activists gathered Friday in Washington, reaffirming their principles, recharging their supporters and vowing to wrest power away from Democrats.

Speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference played up voter frustrations and predicted a comeback for the GOP in this year's midterm elections.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana made no apologies for trying to stop President Obama's agenda in Congress, telling conservative activists he proudly wears the "Party of No" label that Democrats have tried to pin on Republicans.

"Some folks like to call us the 'Party of No,' " Pence said during his speech Friday. "Well, I say 'No' is way underrated here in Washington, D.C. Sometimes 'No' is just what this town needs to hear."

Pence, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, used his address to this influential bloc of GOP base voters to promote his conservative credentials further and sharply criticize the president and the congressional Democratic majority.

And Pence, who is chairman of the House Republican Conference, predicted the GOP would reclaim a majority in the House of Representatives in November and the White House in 2012.

"Welcome to the conservative comeback and the beginning of the end of the Pelosi Congress," Pence said to applause.

Watch CPAC coverage on CNN.com

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The congressman from Indiana is one of several Republicans said to be eyeing a White House bid who addressed the meeting.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke on Thursday, the opening day of this three-day event, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty preceded Pence on Friday morning. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas will deliver remarks later Friday, and on Saturday, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will appear at the conference.

Unlike Romney, who delivered a polished, rousing speech to the conservative audience, Pawlenty opted to speak without a teleprompter and riff off his notes.

Having drawn an early time slot for his speech, Pawlenty spoke to a relatively low-energy crowd in a ballroom with scores of empty seats.

"When we were here year ago at CPAC, there were a lot of naysayers," Pawlenty said in his speech Friday morning.

"We had all these pundits and smart alecks saying the sun was setting on the conservative movement. ... We had people talking about how the new era of hope and change was sweeping aside our values and principles. Hope and change and teleprompter," he said.

U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa followed Pawlenty and fired up the crowd by declaring that Obama has "lost his mojo."

"He had more mojo than any president that I remember when he was inaugurated a year and a month ago. But now, the master-mesmerizer has lost his mojo," King said to rousing applause. "And if we stand our ground as constitutional conservatives, he's not going to get it back."

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota blasted Obama's economic policies in her speech Friday and declared that the president is leading America into a state of "decline."

During her red-meat speech, Bachmann also took aim at Democratic efforts at health care reform and cap-and-trade policies designed to combat global warming, saying such measures will keep the U.S. economy on "an unsustainable path."

The CPAC conference follows a meeting of "Tea Party" activists that took place this month in Nashville, Tennessee. Followers of the Tea Party movement express independence from the national Republican Party, but a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll shows that these activists would vote overwhelmingly Republican in a two-party race for Congress.

Tea Party activists will hold a rally Friday afternoon at the conference that will feature U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, among others.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke out Thursday about the conservative grass-roots movement that emerged in the past year out of concerns about certain policy issues and gridlock in Washington.

"The Republican Party should not attempt to co-opt the tea parties," Boehner said. "I think that's the dumbest thing in the world. What we will do, as long as I'm the leader, is respect them, listen to them and walk amongst them. The other party will never, ever do that."

Other opening-day speakers included former Vice President Dick Cheney, Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio and Romney, a potential 2012 presidential candidate.

Conservatives were in a different mindset a year ago. At the 2009 CPAC conference, the Republican Party was still reeling from Obama's victory over Sen. John McCain as well as the additional gains Democrats made in Congress in 2008.

In the closing speech last year, conservative radio-show host Rush Limbaugh invigorated the audience. Another conservative radio and TV host, Glenn Beck, will close out this year's conference on Saturday.

Over the past 12 months, Republicans have seen the political tide turn: Obama's approval rating has dropped below 50 percent, several congressional Democrats have announced they will retire at the end of the year and Brown took the seat once occupied by Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of Massachusetts for more than four decades.

Now, the GOP is hoping to capitalize on voter frustration with an unemployment rate nearly 10 percent, the housing crisis and the overhaul of health care in Congress. Conservatives point to the recent Republican wins in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey as evidence that momentum is on their side.

The CPAC conference wraps up Saturday with the much-anticipated straw poll, seen as an indicator of the top GOP contenders for the 2012 presidential election.

The choices on the ballot this year are Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Paul, Pawlenty, Pence, Romney, Santorum, U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and a slot for "Other."

CNN's Peter Hamby, Kristi Keck, Alexander Mooney and Mark Preston contributed to this report.