Potential Republican presidential candidates paraded before more than 3,000 conservative activists and donors from across the country here for a two-day summit that ended Saturday, touting their records and trying to look like the future of their party.
The eighth annual Defending the American Dream Summit was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, among the most powerful conservative political groups in the country, backed by GOP donors Charles and David Koch, whose family amassed a fortune in the oil business.
It’s not clear who the Koch brothers might back, given their support for Republican and libertarian causes.
David Koch attended the summit, at one point addressing the crowd and thanking the speakers, in particular Texas Gov. Rick Perry for hosting the summit.
Both Perry and junior Texas Sen. Ted Cruz received raucous applause when they appeared, with many chanting Saturday, “Run, Ted, run!”
“Oddly enough, that’s the same thing my wife, Heidi, says to me when I go to the gym,” Cruz quipped, never revealing during his speech or a briefing afterward whether he plans to run — though he presented a pretty clear platform.
Cruz vowed to roll back Obamacare and hold the line against “amnesty” for immigrants who entered the country illegally, daring President Obama to “join me at the border.” He suggested that the U.S. put more economic pressure on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and attack Islamic State — “bomb them back to the Stone Age.”
“We need a president who will stand up and use every tool at our disposal,” Cruz said to applause and repeated standing ovations.
Greg Danson, 30, a conservative from Houston who works in the oil industry, said he was wowed by Cruz, who he said appears more intellectual than Perry, more like the future of the party than the folksy past of George W. Bush.
“I don’t think Perry can win. He’s not as good in debates. He’s not going to beat Hillary,” Danson said, alluding to the presumed candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Perry, who has been visiting key primary states, emphasized his tough stance on border security.
When Obama refused to send in the National Guard to address the recent border crisis, Perry told the crowd Friday, he sent the troops himself. That earned the governor a standing ovation.
Perry said that when Obama stopped in Dallas earlier this summer, he asked the president to come see the border crisis.
“He turned me down, saying he doesn’t do photo ops,” Perry said. A man in the audience shouted, “Shame!”
Perry derided what he called Obama’s “era of lawlessness,” comparing it — in a nod to tea party activists prominently represented here — to British tyranny over American colonists.
“We need to make Washington as inconsequential in our lives as we can,” Perry said to more applause. He added with a chuckle, “In Texas, we actually do pretty well without Washington’s advice.”
Brandon Rogers, 30, said that out of all the potential candidates, he found Perry most inspiring. Rogers, a filmmaker from Los Angeles, considers himself somewhat libertarian, but not enough to vote for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whom he saw as an idealist. He liked Cruz, too, but said, “Perry could mobilize a movement and inspire a nation.”
Few indicated they were put off by Perry’s recent indictment on two felony charges that stemmed from his threat to withdraw funding for a public integrity unit.
Activists at the summit also heard from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who emphasized his record as a fiscal conservative, promising to reduce the scope of the federal government and taking a swipe at spending under the last Republican in the White House, George W. Bush.
“I felt like the Republican Party was a tall ship with a capable captain and a strong crew that was very dangerously off course into the rocky waters of big government,” Pence said of the Bush administration. “It’s a new season in the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”
Pence noted: “Some people say our next nominee should be a governor, and I’m certainly sympathetic to that.”
Carol Jones, 67, of Bastrop, Texas, drew a smile from Pence when she called out: “Would you please run for president?”
Jones, a retired field director for Americans for Prosperity, said she had grown disillusioned with Perry and was divided between Paul and Pence.
“I just love what he has done in Indiana. My God, if he can do that in Washington — that’s what we need,” she said. “He stacks up better than a lot of these other candidates, except Rand Paul.”
Some in the crowd were concerned that Paul, son of longtime libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, would be unwilling to use U.S. military might overseas, particularly against Russia and in the Middle East.
“He’s too much of an isolationist,” said Doug Vile, 58, a furniture manufacturer from Pauls Valley, Okla., who prefers Cruz and Perry. “One of our responsibilities is to help people all over the world. We’re the peacemakers.”
But Jones said Paul, whom she got to know campaigning for his father, would take action overseas if needed.
Paul took the stage here and quickly abandoned the lectern, pacing and addressing the audience in a breezy, conversational style that drew applause.
Young attendees clapped and cheered as Paul urged them to join him in recruiting unlikely Republicans — minorities in urban areas, at historically black colleges and, yes, even in Berkeley.
“If we’re going to be the party that wins, we have to be a bigger party,” he said. “We don’t need to be Democrat light. We need to reach out to new people.”