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Conservatives wrap up meeting, eye midterm elections

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Gingrich rallies conservatives
  • More than 10,000 people attend annual Conservative Political Action Conference
  • Unifying themes were fiscal discipline, lower taxes, limited government
  • Presidential hopefuls try out their political and policy themes

Washington (CNN) -- Conservatives wrapped up a three-day meeting in the nation's capital on Saturday and headed back home looking ahead to midterm elections they hope will be a springboard to take back the White House in 2012.

More than 10,000 people attended the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering that featured speeches from conservative leaders, potential presidential candidates and training sessions for grass-roots activists who serve as the foundation of the Republican political base.

The unifying themes over the three-day conference were fiscal discipline, less taxes and limited government, and the speakers sought to play up voter frustrations, while predicting a comeback for the GOP in November, a little more than a year after suffering political losses.

For the handful of presidential hopefuls, the conference was an early audition and an opportunity to test political and policy themes. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana made no apologies for trying to stop President Obama's agenda in Congress, telling attendees Friday that 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."

While he was well received, Pence placed fifth in the CPAC presidential straw poll that was won by Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a stalwart foe of government spending.

Video: 14-year-old the talk of CPAC

Paul, who developed a national following in the 2008 presidential campaign, ended former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's three-year winning streak for the poll. Romney placed second, while former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin finished third, followed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Pence.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour rounded out the results.

Despite his distant showing in the straw poll, Gingrich was treated like royalty during his appearance at the conference on Saturday, where he emphasized a political call to arms for conservatives across the country.

"I believe we are now in a struggle over whether or not we are going to save America," Gingrich said. "I believe the radical left is a secular, socialist machine so dedicated to values destructive of America that if it is allowed to remain in power... that machine is antithetical to the survival of America as a prosperous healthy country."

There were also acts of contrition by some of the speakers such as Santorum, who apologized for supporting Sen. Arlen Specter in his 2004 re-election campaign. Specter, a former centrist Republican, abandoned the Republican Party in 2009 and is now a Democrat.

Santorum, who lost his own re-election bid in 2006, said he should have listened to his wife, Karen, who opposed his decision to campaign for Specter six years ago.

"How many times have I said this in my almost 20 years in marriage, 'I should have listened to my wife,'" said Santorum, who is well-respected by conservative activists. "Make no mistake about it. I will be working day and night for Pat Toomey to be the next senator from Pennsylvania."

Toomey is a former congressman who sought to defeat Specter in the 2004 primary. If Specter wins the Democratic primary, he will face Toomey once again, only this time in the general election.

For Paul, CPAC was another opportunity to offer a scorching indictment of lawmakers in Washington, whom he accused of failing to address the nation's growing debt.

Rep. Ron Paul wins presidential straw poll

"Debt is the monster," Paul said Friday as he condemned federal borrowing to support government spending. "Debt is what will eat us up, and that's why our economy is on the brink."

His speech was well-received by attendees, who are angry and frustrated with Obama and congressional Democrats.

Two other potential presidential candidates presented differing styles in their addresses to the conference. While Romney delivered a polished, rousing speech, 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 a year ago at CPAC, there were a lot of naysayers," Pawlenty said in his speech Friday.

"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.

A favorite of the convention was U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who blasted Obama's economic policies in her address 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 held a late afternoon reception for attendees that featured patriotic songs, hors d'oeuvres and an open bar.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke 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 speakers during the conference included former Vice President Dick Cheney, Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio.

Conservatives were in a different mind-set a year ago. At the 2009 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.

But in 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.

CNN's Mark Preston, Peter Hamby, Charles Riley, Alex Mooney, Kristi Keck and Rich Barbieri contributed to this report