With a nod to a potential presidential candidacy, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pitched himself to a prominent crowd of conservative activists Friday by criticizing the last Republican administration in Washington, that of George W. Bush.
Pence noted that before he was elected governor in 2012 he served 12 years in Congress— giving him a familiarity with Washington that, he suggested, had bred contempt as he fought the expansion of government programs, including those supported by his party, such as the education program No Child Left Behind.
"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, noting, "It's a new season in the Republican Party and the conservative movement."
"We need to demand that the new Republican leadership in Washington vote to permanently reduce the size and scope of the federal government," he said, to applause.
Pence has strong ties to the party's conservative wing and drew repeated applause on the first day of a two-day summit sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the political organization connected to Republican megadonors Charles and David Koch.
Other potential 2016 presidential candidates who will speak to attendees include Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the state's junior Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Pence played to the sense that much of the event was an early tryout for 2016.
"Some people say our next nominee should be a governor, and I'm certainly sympathetic to that," Pence told the crowd.
He also emphasized highlights of his 18-month record as governor: lowering unemployment to 5.9%, trimming government spending, lowering income taxes and corporate taxes and eliminating the estate tax.
"I even sold the state plane," he said, scoring laughs.
"You've got to be willing to make the hard choices, and in Indiana we have," Pence said, adding, "We're going to win this country back."
Carol Jones 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 likes Paul, had grown disillusioned with Perry, and left feeling inspired by Pence.
"I love this man. 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 of Pence. "He stacks up better than a lot of these other candidates — except Rand Paul."
Jay Marts, 57, a federal employee from Winchester, Va., a more moderate Republican and Perry fan, left the Pence talk eager to see what Perry would say. Marts said he favors governors as presidential material over congressmen like Cruz and Paul, and he's frustrated with the Republican Party for not being fiscally conservative enough.
"They talk about limited government and taxes — when are they going to start?" Marts said.