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Conservatives defiant in the face of GOP troubles

By Peter Hamby, CNN National Political Reporter
updated 10:52 PM EDT, Fri October 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservatives band together in a show of unity against GOP pragmatists
  • Speakers at Values Summit urge supporters to stand firm in face of calls for moderation
  • Party leaders have already warned against cocooning in a conservative thought bubble.
  • Ted Cruz takes on hecklers; Marco Rubio appears, trying to improve conservative support

Washington (CNN) -- They didn't get the memo.

Seven months after the national Republican Party issued a report exhorting the GOP to "stop talking to itself" and appeal to minorities and swing voters, conservatives banded together on Friday in a defiant show of unity against the party's political pragmatists.

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At the opening session of the Values Voter Summit, a yearly gathering of social conservatives in Washington sponsored by the Family Research Council, a procession of conservative leaders urged their most dedicated supporters to stand firm on principle and defend their values in the face of calls for moderation.

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"They say we have to reach out beyond our conservative base," said Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a driving force behind the movement on Capitol Hill to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. "I think they make a great point. Times have changed. We do have to broaden our appeal and we do have to change the way we talk about the family. But ultimately the critics have it backwards. It isn't that conservatives focus too much on the family, but far too little."

The summit, with its made-for-Twitter rhetorical broadsides, had the effect of making the Republican National Committee's "Growth And Opportunity Project" -- a post-election project commissioned by the RNC to examine why the party failed in 2012 and how to win in the future -- seem like a quaint and distant memory.

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Besides calling on GOP leaders to modernize their broken election turnout machinery, and to back comprehensive immigration reform in a bid to win over Hispanic voters, the authors of the so-called "autopsy" report warned Republicans against cocooning themselves in a conservative thought bubble.

"Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us," the RNC report said. "Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism."

The crowd at the Omni Shoreham Hotel -- comprised of roughly 2,000 paying participants, an organizer said -- represents only a small slice of the GOP coalition.

But events like this one can serve as a barometer of right-leaning sentiment and provide a nationally-televised platform for some of the conservative movement's most controversial voices. They did not pull punches.

A roster of conservative speakers savaged the GOP establishment -- including Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's onetime presidential nominee -- as traitors to the cause.

"The old bulls will not act on our behalf," warned Mark Levin, the radio host.

Louie Gohmert, a tea party aligned congressman from Texas, even accused McCain, a noted foreign policy hawk, of supporting al Qaeda.

A band of protesters demanding immigration reform were angrily shouted down by the audience and called "rabid" by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the reigning hero of the tea party movement.

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Radio host Sandy Rios cast doubt on the story of the killing of Matthew Shepard, saying the gay University of Wyoming student was brutally murdered in 1998 not because of his sexuality, but because of "a drug deal gone bad."

And one of the conservative movement's most provocative orators, the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, called Obamacare "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery" -- a claim that was met with loud applause.

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The conference was chock full of the kind of flame-throwing rhetoric that elicits groans from the GOP consultant class on Capitol Hill, who fret that their chances of winning national elections are being crippled by a class of emboldened tea party upstarts who can win Republican primaries but do little to broaden the party's appeal to women, young voters and Hispanics.

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Just 24% of Americans have a positive view of the Republican Party, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey revealed on Thursday -- an all-time low for the GOP -- and only 21% had a positive view of the tea party movement.

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Despite the tea party's toxic brand, a number of Republicans who may seek the presidency in 2016, including Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, took a breather from shutdown negotiations to deliver remarks at the conference -- an effort to court the kind of voters who hold great sway inside the GOP nominating process.

Cruz, who has emerged as the most visible conservative foil to President Barack Obama during the spending showdown, was greeted with a standing ovation after being introduced by the writer L. Brent Bozell. He whipped up the audience with a pointed attack on McCain, who has asked conservatives to stand down on using Obamacare as a bargaining tactic.

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The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, 2013, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, 2013, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown.
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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a news conference May 16 on Capitol Hill. Cruz threw himself into the national spotlight in September when he spoke on the Senate floor for almost 22 hours in an attempt to block funding to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a news conference May 16 on Capitol Hill. Cruz threw himself into the national spotlight in September when he spoke on the Senate floor for almost 22 hours in an attempt to block funding to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
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Bozell accused Republican leaders in the House and Senate of "trying to destroy" Cruz and "his crusade to save America."

After Cruz began talking about the need to stop the "nightmare" of the Affordable Care Act, his speech was repeatedly interrupted. About a dozen protestors screamed at him from the audience, asking him why he opposes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Cruz voted against the sweeping immigration overhaul passed by the Senate last summer, a bill now stalled in the House.

The protestors, representing a handful of immigration reform advocacy groups, were jeered by the audience and escorted out of the hotel by security guards. Cruz accused them of being "rabid political operatives" sent by the White House.

Only moments later, Rubio, a Cuban-American who is the face of GOP efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, made it through an inspirational speech hailing the greatness of America without any mention of the immigration bill that he helped advance though the Senate.

Rubio's once-sterling reputation among conservatives was sullied by the immigration effort, and he has spent the last several months trying to repair his standing on the right.

Multiple speakers urged House Republican leaders not to abandon Obamacare as a bargaining chip in the spending stalemate that led to a government shutdown almost two weeks ago, even though House Speaker John Boehner and his deputies in Congress appear on the verge of doing so, in pursuit of other spending reductions.

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Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Chairman behind the GOP's new plan to end the stalemate by pursuing reforms to entitlements and the tax code rather than health care de-funding, opted not to step into the den of anti-Obamacare fervor.

Instead, he sent along a brief video message. It was greeted with polite applause.

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