GOP hopefuls serve red meat, audience eats it up

The three Republican presidential aspirants at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, didn’t take long Friday to give the audience what they wanted: attacks.

"It was a red-meat speech for the crowd at CPAC,” Patrick Stewart-Hester said of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s remarks to the conservative gathering. “The crowd loved it. I liked it.”

Gingrich unleashed a scathing line of attack on the Obama presidency and promised to work to undo most of the current president’s programs on his first day in office.

Rick Santorum, full of haymakers for President Obama and veiled swipes at Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, appeared to hit all the right notes for the Washington political gathering Friday morning.

“He was saying what needed to be said,” noted University of Georgia student Matthew Aldridge. “He talked about values of the American people. Of course, we need to get back to that.”

Aldridge, a Gingrich supporter, said that he would support any Republican candidate who won the nomination, a common comment here at the Wardman Park Marriott.

“We have to defeat Obama,” said Nancy Baumann, a new member of Team Santorum.

"(Santorum) said something that I have been saying to other conservatives for a while: he would be a great contrast to Barack Obama,” Baumann said. “I don’t see a lot of difference between Romney and Obama.”

Santorum’s speech stressed that contrast, noting that two of his opponents for the Republican nomination supported the so-called Wall Stree bank bailout. He added that one of his competitors enacted what he called the blueprint for the president’s health care plan.

“He’s smart. He knows the issues. He’s conservative. He’s always been conservative, so you don’t have to worry if he gets in the White House where he’s going to be on the issues,” said Terry Scanlon, who said he feels that Santorum has a real shot at the nomination after his surprising sweep of nominating contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday.

Even so, despite the four standing ovations and plenty of applause breaks, at least one attendee wasn’t completely convinced.

“There’s just something about him that that I’m a little wary of,” Aldridge said.

Romney followed in the early afternoon with an address that was heavy on applause lines, mostly ignoring his competitors to aim his fire at the president. Two of Romney’s five standing ovations – the most of any candidate -- were attacks on the Obama presidency. But it was Romney’s trumpeting of his business-world success that brought the crowd to its feet for the most vigorous cheers during the former Massachusetts governor’s speech.

Despite a seemingly warm reception, communications professional and speech coach Bert Decker noted that Romney was relying on something the other two White House hopefuls did without. “Romney used a TelePrompTer and neither of the others did,” Decker said, “the teleprompter always takes energy away, so he was the weakest of the three. But he did well for himself given his limitation.”

Another attendee said the prompting didn’t bother her one bit. “This was the first time I’ve ever seen (Romney) live, and I thought his presentation live was much more appealing than watching him on television,” said Rebecca Finley, a retired teacher. Finley lamented the focus placed on what some call Romney’s stiffness on camera. “I feel bad for that because the presidential nominee is supposed to be American Idol now,” adding that she felt that a candidate’s decision-making process should be more important to voters than a TV appearance.

The only presidential candidate not in attendance, Ron Paul, had his son Sen. Rand Paul serve as a surrogate for the gathering on Thursday.

We’ll find out which candidate the crowd liked the best on Saturday, when CPAC straw poll balloting concludes.