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Updated Mar 6, 2014 - 10:42 am

Arizona legislator takes stage at conservative gathering near Washington

OXON HILL, Md. — Republican leaders implored conservatives to offer stark
contrast to President Barack Obama’s policies and stand firm on principles as a
way to win back Senate control in the fall elections and prepare for the 2016
presidential campaign.

Thursday marked the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action
Conference, which brought together prospective White House candidates,
conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast. Arizona State Rep. Justin Pierce addressed the group early. He was among 10 under-40 conservatives chosen to speak on the main stage.

As the
party faces a tug of war for the soul of the GOP, Republicans made the case that
the party must unite and offer a different path in the midterm elections.

“You win elections by standing for principle and inspiring people that there
is a better tomorrow,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, among a group of potential
2016 presidential hopefuls appearing at the conference.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Mitt Romney’s running
mate in 2012, downplayed divisions within the party as “creative tension” and
urged conservative activists to “give each other the benefit of the doubt” in
the debate over the party’s future.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was also on the speaking program, facing
conservatives who have been slow to embrace him. The New Jersey governor wasn’t
invited to last year’s conference but had the chance to make his first public
address in the Washington area since a political retribution scandal erupted in

Christie was expected to call on activists and party leaders to not waste time
with political arguments that don’t produce results. He was also expected to
criticize the media, a strategy that plays well among tea party supporters and
could help improve his standing among skeptical conservatives.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, trying to stare down a tea party
primary challenge in Kentucky, arrived on stage holding a rifle aloft, which he
presented to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a favorite of conservatives.
If Republicans win back control of the Senate, McConnell would be in a position
to lead the chamber, but first he must win over wary conservatives and win
re-election against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has the backing of
party leaders.

McConnell said Obama had treated the U.S. Constitution “worse than a place mat
at Denny’s” and noted his fights to oppose the president’s agenda. He said the
wealthiest Americans have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer under
Obama, pointing to a Republican-controlled Senate as a way to help restore
economic prosperity.

The event comes one year after Republican officials released a comprehensive
plan to broaden the GOP’s appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season. But
the party is far from united as it looks to the future. The conference is
expected to showcase intraparty divisions on foreign policy, political strategy
and social issues.

The debate could weigh heavily on the November midterm elections, which will
decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill for the final two years of Obama’s

With control of the Senate within the GOP’s reach, American Conservative Union
Chairman Al Cardenas said there are early signs of a pragmatic shift among
conservative activists who typically favor ideological purity at all costs.

“Most people are realizing that it’s cool to be selecting the most
conservative in the race, but there’s an additional caveat that needs to be
added, and that’s who can win in the general election,” he said.

Cardenas said the conference will also address Obama’s positions on income
inequality and the political unrest in Ukraine. He said he’s particularly
looking forward to intraparty debates in panel discussions with titles such as
“Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”

The three-day conference ends Saturday.


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