Here are some impressions from the candidate speeches during the first two days of CPAC, in no particular order:
Carly Fiorina: She followed up on her strong Iowa performance with another really good, tough speech. She is an adept public speaker and is obviously auditioning for the role of anti-Hillary attack dog.
Scott Walker: It was a barnburner of a speech. He lit up the crowd and handled a heckler adroitly. His record in Wisconsin is a roll call of achievements to thrill conservatives. A few weeks ago, I thought there were three questions about Walker: Would he be up for a national race as a performer? Could he scale up his Wisconsin operation? And what are his national positions?
There shouldn’t be any more doubt on the first. But he is still especially wobbly on the last. I think he is getting unfairly dinged on comparing union protestors to terrorists — that’s clearly not what he meant — but he said what he did because he’s straining for national-security credibility. He’d be better off just having clear, sound answers to foreign-policy questions rather than reaching to extrapolate from his Wisconsin experiences.
In the meantime, based on CPAC, the Walker wave will probably only keep building.
Ted Cruz: Oddly, the quotient of applause lines to applause seemed off. His jokes were clunky and he was a little shouty. But there is no doubt that people still love him for his role in the last government shutdown. One problem for his candidacy is that his show-me-what-you’ve done riff is a better setup for Scott Walker than for himself. It is a bit odd for a senator to say “Talk is cheap” when, unless they are master legislators, pretty much all that senators do is talk.
Marco Rubio: He gave a speech that felt a little more like a set speech at a political convention than the usual CPAC red-meat fare. He kept it short to leave more time for a Q&A with Sean Hannity. The speech was devoted to American exceptionalism and American leadership and was well received. He was excellent in the discussion with Hannity. I’m glad to hear that, after the experience of comprehensive immigration reform, he now favors enforcement-first on immigration.
Rubio is a natural political talent, who has spent the last year thinking through a fresh domestic-policy agenda in support of his view of America as a land of aspiration. His personal narrative could line up very powerfully with his emphasis on American exceptionalism and his theme of the future versus the past (his one word for Hillary in the Q&A with Hannity: “yesterday”). It’s a crowded field and perhaps Rubio will never find the daylight for running room, but if he does: Watch out.
Chris Christie: Candidates had the option of giving a speech or getting interviewed. Christie chose to get interviewed by Laura Ingraham. It was a wise choice. Laura challenged him, but he weathered the questioning fine and it was a format best suited for the force of Christie’s personality. The problem for him is that his early accomplishments in New Jersey and his personality manifestly aren’t going to be enough to get him through a Republican nomination battle.
Jeb Bush: He, too, opted for a Q&A instead of a speech. Sean Hannity questioned him and hit on the big two problem issues, immigration and Common Core. Jeb handled them well, and emphasized border enforcement in his discussion of immigration. (Republicans are wrong, by the way, merely to focus on the border, when workplace enforcement is equally or more important.)
He touted his record in Florida, which was one of conservative accomplishment, and put an emphasis on economic growth. Among Bush’s strengths are his policy knowledge and his seriousness of purpose. When Hannity asked him what kind of conservative he is, he basically said a conservative practitioner—someone who doesn’t just believe and talk about this stuff but gets it done. He’s not an exciting speaker and he shares some mannerisms with his brother that might be a little off-putting to people.
But he did well before a skeptical audience, and perhaps his best line was when Hannity asked him what he thought of people reacting negatively just at the mention of his name. Bush said he would count those people as neutral and be happy to be their second choice — exactly the right answer for someone who can’t afford to give off any sense of entitlement.
Overall, it was a heartening two days. This is a very strong field, and it hasn’t even kicked into full gear yet.