OXON HILL, Md. – Republican potential presidential candidates seemed torn Thursday: Would they get more accolades from conservatives by bashing President Obama, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush?
It was hard to say whom the thousands of activists attending the first full day of the Conservative Political Action Conference disliked most.
They cheered when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, described Obama as a “lawless imperator,” or emperor.
They loved former business executive Carly Fiorina’s demand: “Mrs. Clinton, name an accomplishment.”
And they applauded energetically when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Bush would be the favorite of “elites in Washington who make backroom deals.”
The conference, which will continue Friday with appearances by Bush and other possible 2016 candidates, is the biggest test so far of how they fare with this crucial Republican constituency. Bush faces the most scrutiny, and some activists Thursday were considering walking out during his appearance.
Six potential candidates appeared Thursday, and their views were largely similar. They wanted the Affordable Care Act repealed, a get-tougher policy with illegal immigration and stronger American leadership in the world, especially against terrorism.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called Obama “disqualified” and “incapable” of being commander-in-chief.
“We need a president who will stand up and say we will take the fight to them and not wait till they take the fight to American soil,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who got the day’s biggest crowds and biggest cheers.
Walker said that his battle with protesters in Wisconsin showed that he has the mettle to be commander-in-chief and keep the nation safe.
“I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists do not wash up on America soil,” he said. “We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
The differences involved tone and style. Christie, never a big favorite of this bloc, engaged in a 20-minute question-and-answer session with radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham. He started slowly, drawing only occasional, polite applause as he bashed Washington elites and the New York Times.
Christie has been sinking in recent Republican presidential polls. He dismissed them, asking sarcastically, “Is the election next week?”
One constant criticism, Ingraham said, is that he’s hotheaded. “The word they miss is passion,” Christie fired back. “Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up.”
Christie jabbed gently at Bush, a supporter of the Common Core educational standards. Christie, once a backer himself, said he now had “implementation regrets” because parents and teachers seemed to have less say on education policy.
Fiorina aimed her firepower at Clinton. “Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe,” said the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive. “Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”
She challenged Clinton to “please explain why we should accept that the millions and millions of dollars that have flowed into the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments don’t represent a conflict of interest.”
The Clintons’ foundation has come under fire for accepting contributions from foreign governments.
The audience loved it, and Fiorina proved an energetic warm-up for Cruz, a favorite of the crowd. He walked around the stage as he spoke, almost shouting at times. “We could have had Hillary here,” he said, “but we couldn’t find a foreign nation to foot the bill.”
Cruz urged rebuilding the Reagan coalition of the 1980s, when the former California governor challenged Washington and its ways.
The Texas senator went down a list of issues — immigration, the debt ceiling, efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and so on — and, without naming names, urged everyone to make sure their candidates are true to conservative principles.
Walker was the day’s biggest attraction. He drew a standing-room-only audience, and at one point some audience members began chanting, “Run, Scott, run.” His message was that “Washington is washed up,” and that he could streamline the federal government in the same way he manages Wisconsin.
Jindal also ripped into Washington, blasting congressional leaders, including Republicans, for not doing enough to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“We need to be principled conservative Republicans,’ ” he said. “This election wasn’t about getting a nicer office for Mitch McConnell.” McConnell has not moved to a new office since becoming majority leader last month.
Offering a gentler tone was retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who appeared to have the largest army of supporters at the conference. He talked about implementing new policies such as home schooling or health care accounts.
He didn’t want to rehash disdain for Obama. That would be “too depressing,” Carson said.