The year’s biggest conservative confab features thousands of activists, elected officials and party leaders gathering for the Conservative Political Action Conference.
But while they’re meeting at a convention center just outside of Washington, D.C., their minds — and rhetoric — are focused squarely on the White House and on attacking Hillary Clinton, the most likely Democratic nominee in 2016. Here’s every critical thing they said about her Thursday:
This year’s CPAC marks the unofficial kickoff of the battle for the conservative vote among GOP presidential contenders. For some, like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the event will be a homecoming, a return to their most ardent and loyal supporters.
For others, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, CPAC represents a lion’s den, full of activists skeptical of his conservative chops and wary of his presidential aspirations.
CPAC can put a potential contender on the map, as it did with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson last year, when the movement launched to draft him into the presidential race drew significant attention and he took third in the presidential straw poll.
But it can also cripple a frontrunner, as it did when then-GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney called himself “severely conservative” at the 2012 convention.
What does CPAC look like? check out the video below:
Here’s what you need to know:
Bush survives CPAC grilling
3 p.m. - Jeb Bush defended his positions on immigration – and made some breaks from hard-line conservatives – in front of a rowdy crowd Friday afternoon.
The former Florida governor went all-in on his support for a giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, and for making in-state college tuition available for those immigrants.
But he earned loud cheers from the crowd by saying he’d favor closing the U.S.-Mexico border first, before enacting any other immigration reforms, and for saying tens of thousands of Central American immigrants who arrived in Texas last summer should have been deported.
And he punted on a question about Congress’ ongoing fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security and whether Republicans should stick with a measure that also defunds President Barack Obama’s immigration actions – even at the risk of shutting the department down.
“I’m not an expert on the ways of Washington,” he said.
Bush’s comments came in a highly-anticipated question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Some members of the crowd walked out early in Bush’s appearance, and others interrupted him with jeers. But they were matched in volume by Bush’s supporters.
Hannity put Bush on defense for much of the 25-minute session, quizzing him on his stances on two issues that could hurt him with the GOP base: immigration and the Common Core education standards.
Bush used the education questions to tout his role as one of the nation’s leading conservative reformers, noting that Florida had launched the first statewide voucher program on his watch and offered a long list of choices that allow students and their parents to decide how to spend public education dollars.
He also told the crowd that Republicans need to pivot from their opposition to Obama – who he called a “failed president” – to a more positive agenda in 2016.
“It’s good to oppose the bad things, but we need to start being for things,” Bush said.
The same, he said, goes for him – the candidate with a father and brother who were president.
“I have to show what’s in my heart. I have to show that I care about people, about their future,” Bush said. “It can’t be about the past.”
— Eric Bradner, CNN
Duck Dynasty star wings it on center stage
In between the seemingly endless parade of 2016 hopefuls – Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson had plenty of red meat to offer to CPAC’s conservative attendees, and advice to any potential Republican Candidates.
“Carry two things wherever you go in case you become president – your bible and your woman,”
The former A&E reality show was not shy in asserting his own unabashedly conservative beliefs.
“I am a god-loving, bible-believing, gun-toting, capitalist,” Robertson declared to the crowd.
Taking a decidedly spiritual tone, Robertson read mostly from religious texts and selected writing from George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, imploring conservatives to hold onto America’s religious roots.
“If you think I’m a little too religious for you, just listen to your founding fathers, the men that founded this country,” Robertson said, “then decide if I’m too religious for you.”
Robertson also lamented the decline of the American family, citing CDC data on rates of sexually transmitted diseases as evidence of the U.S.’s moral decline.
He also likened the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the rise of Hitler and Stalin before World War II, pointing to a lack of Christian values as a common strain in those two nations.
“I don’t see a dime’s worth of different in any of them,” Robertson said.
He closed with another nod to 2016.
“If we don’t have spiritual men making political decisions, you’re going to lose this country,” Robertson warned.
– Johnny Verhovek, CNN
Santorum: Presidency ‘not an entry level position’
1:15 p.m. Former Sen. Rick Santorum pitched his foreign policy experience at CPAC on Friday as he laid out the radical Islamist threat the United States faces.
“Commander in chief is not an entry level position. And the oval office is no place for on the job training, not in times like this,” said Santorum, who spent eight years on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Santorum had trouble building applause lines as a crowd of Sen. Rand Paul supporters filtered out of the room after Paul, a crowd favorite, left the stage.
But the crowd’s enthusiasm grew as Santorum shifted focus from economics and the need to “stand for the little guy” to the threat of radical Islam.
Santorum laid out his vision for a hawkish foreign policy, calling for a robust military and the need for the United States military to deploy 10,000 “boots on the ground” to defeat ISIS.
Jeremy Diamond, CNN
Rand, the doctor, pitches 2016 ‘healing’ message
1 p.m. - Sen. Rand Paul while speaking to a friendly audience, stuck largely to his stump speech but also used his background as a physician to distinguish himself from the rest of the crowded field of potential presidential candidates.
“As a doctor, I will take it and make it my mission to heal the nation, reverse the course of Obamacare, and repeal every last bit of it,” he said, adding that Chief Justice John Robert’s decision was the “mistake of the century.”
The Kentucky Republican undoubtedly had the warmest reception from the young CPAC crowd, which has traditionally tilted in favor of the libertarian-leaning senator and previously his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The audience was the fullest yet in the massive ballroom, and chants of “President Paul” occasionally broke out.
Paul ticked through his views on privacy and the Bill of Rights and rallied the crowd to its feet with a healthy dish of red meat, reiterating that it’s time for Hillary Clinton to “permanently retire” and calling for term limits for members of Congress.
And while polls show momentum building towards a more aggressive U.S. response against ISIS, Paul tried to carefully walk the line of supporting a strong national defense while still holding onto his non-interventionist views.
“Without question we must defend ourselves,” he said. “I envision an America with a National Defense unparalleled, undefeatable, and unencumbered by nation building.”
Perry talks foreign policy, immigration
9:42 a.m. - Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to leverage the experience that 14 years as a border-state governor gives him over the rest of the 2016 Republican presidential field during his Friday morning CPAC speech.
Perry hit the issue of immigration hard, repeatedly touting his state’s efforts – which included deploying the National Guard – to stop an influx of undocumented minors that were crossing the U.S.-Mexico border last summer.
He recalled a conversation with President Barack Obama during the President’s visit to Dallas last year.
“I said to him, Mr. President, if you don’t secure this border, Texas will, and that’s exactly what we did,” he said.
Asked about his plans for immigration reform, Perry offered no specifics, though.
“If you do not secure the border first, you can’t have a conversation about immigration reform, that’s just a fact,” he said.
He also called for “aviation assets” to monitor the border.
Perry also slugged Obama – who was the sole focus of his speech and remarks in a subsequent question-and-answer session, unlike other Republicans who have hit Hillary Clinton or other party members – for his handling of foreign threats like ISIS.
He said the United States must support Israel and be sure not to “grant Iran’s nuclear ambitions diplomatic cover.”
Perry touted tax cuts and regulatory reforms enacted in Texas as a national model, and said that there’s “nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed with new leadership.”
Comparing Obama’s leadership to wars, depressions and Jimmy Carter, Perry said: “We’ve survived worse.”
CNN spent time with Perry in New Hampshire recently. He kissed babies, shook hands, and tried to convince voters that 2015 Perry is a far different potential candidate than the one who “stepped in it” four years ago. Watch that below and read on for more from CPAC:
Rubio: Hillary Clinton is so ‘yesterday’
8:40 a.m. - For Sen. Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton is “yesterday.”
That may be why, during his Friday-morning speech at CPAC, the potential presidential contender laid out his vision for a “new American century.”
In a succinct address, the Florida senator said that while America’s still exceptional, “you wouldn’t know it by listening to the President, who’s described our nation as sometimes being arrogant or dictating terms to others.”
“Our nation is on the decline,” he added. “The good news is, we are one election away from triggering another American century.”
Rubio leaned heavily on his own personal story in his speech, referencing his family’s immigration to America and his working-class upbringing.
“America doesn’t owe me anything,” he said, “but I have a debt to America.”
And in a question-and-answer session with Sean Hannity, Rubio again drew a juxtaposition between the problems of the past and the solutions of the future.
“We’re basically having the industrial revolution every five years — and our leaders are basically stuck in yesterday,” he said.
In a rapid-fire word-association segment, Rubio described Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential frontrunner, as “yesterday,” Bill Clinton as “really yesterday,” and Obama as “failed.”
But he was careful to keep controversy at arms length in the question-and-answer session, distancing himself from his role in passing the Senate immigration reform bill in 2013 that sparked heavy backlash from conservatives. He called for tougher border control and restrictions on legal immigration before addressing those in the U.S. illegally.
“You can’t even begin to have a conversation about [immigrants in the U.S. illegally] until people believe, and know … that future illegal immigration will be controlled,” he said.
Jindal closes day one of speeches
6:25 p.m. - Gov. Bobby Jindal laid out his criticism of Common Core, slammed President Barack Obama on the fight against radical Islam and reemphasized the need for immigrants to assimilate in the United States.
Jindal’s one-liners may have been new to many in the crowd, but most of his speech was recycled from past appearances and resembled an address he delivered earlier this month at an American Principles Project event.
Jindal also took the opportunity to knock Obama on remarks he made earlier this month at the National Prayer Breakfast.
“I’ll keep my eye out for the medieval Christians,” Jindal said. “Why don’t you go out and win the war against radical Islam.”
When taking questions, Jindal emphasized the time he’s spent in the last year putting out policy papers through his policy organization, America Next, noting that he’s staked out positions on everything from energy independence to alternatives to Obamacare and Common Core.
Walker harsh on Obama’s foreign policy, vague on his own
5:25 p.m. – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker offered a blistering critique of President Barack Obama’s handling of the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” on Thursday – but little substance on how he’d address the challenge himself.
“We need a president, a leader, who will stand up and say, we will take the fight to them and not wait until they bring the fight to America’s soil, to our children and our grandchildren,” Walker said.
Later, in a short opening speech, he added: “We need to show the world that in America, you have no better ally and no greater enemy. In America, we will stand up for what is right and stand against what is wrong.”
Asked by an audience member about how he’d deal with the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Walker responded that he gets FBI threat briefings from his adjutant general and that “without divulging confidential information,” he’s been concerned about the group for years.
But he didn’t offer a specific answer to how he’d take on the group, instead pivoting back to his experience in Wisconsin.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said.
It was a reference to Walker’s fight against labor unions in Wisconsin, where his move to strip public employees’ collective bargaining rights caused months of protests, forced him to survive a recall election, and turned him into a rock star on the right.
Those fights were Walker’s comfort zone. He touted Republican efforts in Wisconsin to block government dollars from going to Planned Parenthood, to require photo IDs to vote, and to reduce regulations. He also pointed to a new GOP push to enact union-busting right-to-work legislation there.
In making his pitch, Walker showcased the no-compromise rhetoric that has made him a conservative favorite.
“We won in Wisconsin a state that hasn’t gone Republican for president since 1984. … We did it without compromising,” he said. “We stood up and said what we were gonna do, and then we did it.”
- Eric Bradner, CNN
Perry passes on Jeb Bush attack
4:55 PM – After he joined the 2012 presidential race, a brash Rick Perry quickly laid down a marker when asked how he differed from George W. Bush, another Texan who made it to the White House.
“I went to Texas A&M,” Perry told reporters as he strolled confidently through the Iowa State Fair in late summer 2011. “He went to Yale.”
Perry was drawing an unmistakable cultural contrast and making no secret about his frosty relationship with the Bush family.
Today, with Perry and another Bush — Jeb — both looking at the presidency in 2016, the recently-departed Texas governor is this time staying away from direct attacks on the GOP’s most famous family.
Asked if the country has an appetite for a third Bush presidency, Perry passed on needling the former Florida governor.
“Really I think the country has an appetite to get the country back working,” he told CNN as he walked through the crowded hallways of CPAC on Thursday. “I don’t think the country cares what state they’re from.”
Asked again about his relationship with the Bushes, Perry again punted.
“I don’t think the country cares about anything other than who is going to get this country back working again, and who is going to have a foreign policy that is cogent, where are allies know who is going to be there for them, and when people who aren’t our friends cross red lines, there is a consequence,” Perry responded. “They could care less what state they’re from.”
– Peter Hamby, CNN
That time Carly Fiorina appeared at the Clinton Global Initiative
4:40 p.m. - Shortly after Carly Fiorina wrapped her speech to CPAC, where she repeatedly attacked former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s record on foreign policy issues, a pro-Clinton rapid response political organization reminded reporters of a time when the former Hewlett-Packard executive spoke at the Clinton family’s flagship organization.
“#TBT that time @CarlyFiorina spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative. #CPAC2015,” the group Correct the Record tweeted on Thursday afternoon, a reference to the Throwback Thursday ritual of recalling times gone by on the social media outlet.
The group also included a link to a press release including details of the May 2013 event, which was billed as an event gathering top CEOs and government officials on “boosting the economy.”
“I think on balance it’s a positive thing, actually,” Fiorina says of the foundation in 2013. She added in an interview with Jake Tapper that “the Clinton Global Initiative does a lot of good work around the world,” but says that the group’s corporate ties will likely cause HRC problems if she runs.
When asked about the Clinton critique, a spokeswoman for Fiorina turned the query back on the former first lady.
“It’s a simple question: can they name a single accomplishment from her time as Secretary of State? They’ve been asked many times. I have yet to see an answer,” Sarah Isgur Flores said in an emailed statement.
-Jedd Rosche and Dan Merica, CNN
Cruz’s sermon: Reagan, Clinton and miracles
2:15 p.m. - Sen. Ted Cruz is hoping his kind of conservatism could “bring back the miracle that is America.”
“America is in jeopardy and we are met totday in a great battlefield. The men and women who are gathered here today are gathered to fight for freedom in our country,” Cruz told his CPAC audience Thursday.
Cruz, who has often set himself up at odds with the Republican leadership in Congress, said voters will need to “differentiate” between true conservatives and, essentially, posers.
No one will say “‘I’m a squishy moderate that stands for nothing,’” Cruz joked before quoting Scripture: “You shall know them by their fruits.”
“Demand action, not talk,” Cruz urged the audience of activists. “If a candidate tells you they oppose the debt and debt ceiling that are crushing our kids. Terrific. What if you stood up and fought against it.”
As he has in past speeches, Cruz rallied the crowd by painting a stark contrast between Washington and what “the people want” and used it as an opportunity to take a shot at former former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he said embodies Washington.
Cruz’s speech was also full of one-liners slamming Obama and his healthcare law and attacks against Democrats, some of whom plan to boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next week.
“There’s not a single Democrat here. It’s almost like CPAC invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak,” Cruz joked.
Cruz also likened himself to the car service app Uber: “What I’m trying to do more than anything else is bring a disruptive app to politics.”
And in a lighting round with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Cruz gave his top priorities for his first day in office if he were to be elected president, which included abolishing the IRS, repealing Obamacare and defending “our constitutional rights.”
-Jeremy Diamond, CNN
Carly Fiorina attacks Hillary Clinton’s record
1:45 p.m. – Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive who could be the only woman to enter the Republican race, took a series of shots at Hillary Clinton – who she challenged to “please name an accomplishment.”
“Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment,” she said.
Fiorina lambasted Clinton’s handling of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and her “conflict of interest” when the Clinton Foundation reportedly accepted gifts from foreign governments during her tenure as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
“She tweets about women’s rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights. She tweets about equal pay for women but will not answer basic questions about her own offices’ pay standards – and neither will our President,” Fiorina said. “Hillary may like hashtags. But she doesn’t know what leadership means.”
Fiorina also name-dropped the woman many liberals hope will challenge Clinton in the Democratic primary: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
She channeled Warren’s populist appeal, saying she’d diagnosed similar problems but had a dramatically different take on the solutions.
“Elizabeth Warren is right: crony capitalism is alive and well,” Fiorina said. “Government and government programs have grown so big, so powerful, so costly and so complex that only the big and the powerful can prosper. But Elizabeth Warren is dead wrong about how to end crony capitalism. You see, whether it is Dodd-Frank, Obamacare or net neutrality, all this government complexity means the big get bigger, the small disappear, and the powerless are trapped.”
– Eric Bradner, CNN
Chris Christie goes after Jeb Bush
1:00 p.m. - Gov. Chris Christie sought to defend his brash style and counter narratives that he’s being outrun by Jeb Bush, saying it’s too early to make sweeping predictions.
The New Jersey Republican sat on stage with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, where he dropped a round of anti-media digs — “I’m giving up the New York Times for Lent” — to counter recent narratives about a slowed momentum for the potential Christie campaign.
“Is the election next week?” he asked, when pressed on his low standing in 2016 polls. “If I decide to run for president, I’m not worried what polls say 21 months before” the election.
Asked how he’ll manage to outperform Bush, who’s tapping into his family’s vast network to collect a massive fundraising haul, Christie said “if the elites in Washington who make backroom deals” decide the nominee, then Bush would be the frontrunner. But, he argued, he’ll “do OK” if that decision is left up to the people.
He also said that Bush’s previous proposal about repopulating Detroit with immigrants was “misrepresenting the priorities” and said he would focus more on the people already living in the city.
Christie, as he’s been doing in early voting states lately, embraced his “Jersey guy” persona, saying people like to hear a direct, blunt politician.
“Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up,” he said, defending his outburst against a heckler in the fall.
– CNN’s Ashley Killough
9:00 A.M.: Ben Carson took the stage earlier than scheduled, but still found a packed auditorium and enthusiastic audience for a relatively subdued speech that unfolded like a laundry list of his policy priorities.
Carson urged listeners, “let’s not turn our backs on Israel,” said Congress should offer an alternative to Obamacare before they repeal it, and defended conservatives’ opposition to same-sex marriage. It was a departure from last year’s speech, during which he railed with fiery rhetoric against the “P.C. police.”
“We need to move in a very different direction,” Carson said, calling for the nation to move away from big government programs.
He also, during the question-and-answer portion of his appearance, said the government should have a “safety net” to support those in need, but should eliminate programs that cause “dependency.” And he said that home-schoolers, in his estimation, perform better than public school educated students.
– Alexandra Jaffe, CNN
Carson is one of the more interesting newcomers on the national political stage. An African American in a party desparate to make inroads with minorities, Carson is also a neurosurgeon without the burden of a political background. He has become a favorite in the conservative media. He’s also the only potential 2016 candidate to have a movie made about his medical career. Cuba Gooding, Jr., played Carson. But as a fierce critic of Obamacare, Carson has also waded into controversy. He once compared the health care law to slavery and drawn parallels between the U.S. and Nazi Germany.
CNN’s Mark Preston made this short bio video with our digital video team earlier this year:
Carson debated Wolf Blitzer about that Nazi Germany comment back in December:
Meanwhile, out in the halls of the conference, some of the more interesting characters of the conservative movement had on their American flag pants:
Carson suggests stripping the president of his golf game: