WASHINGTON-Two potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates on most shortlists for winning the nomination took the stage Friday at day two for Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
But a presidential long shot stole the show.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty largely stuck to CPAC's script, bashing President Barack Obama and preaching about American exceptionalism to the annual gathering of conservatives.
Yet, later, longtime Texas congressman and CPAC darling Ron Paul rocked the crowd with his annual bashing of just about everybody involved with politics as usual in Washington. He spoke to a home team crowd of mostly young libertarians who tend to hijack the convention each year. They had already made their presence felt a day earlier by booing everyone from Donald Trump to Dick Cheney.
But Friday began with Romney-who may take a second crack at the White House after falling short in 2008-describing the new, post-November election Obama: "The president went from change you can believe in to 'Can you believe this change.'"
Following the pattern of most of CPAC's speeches, Romney devoted the first half to detailing the lack of direction in the White House-both in foreign and domestic policy. "It is going to take a lot more than new rhetoric to put American back to work, " he said. "It is going to take a new president."
It seems like CPAC has become a dress rehearsal of sorts for candidates-giving them an opportunity to hurl one-liners after another at the audience to see which ones stick. Despite his stump speech, Romney made no official announcement regarding his 2012 intentions. And the audience here is always eager to embrace its role as the test screeners for conservative sound bites.
Pawlenty also used CPAC to warm up his campaign rhetoric, largely taking on Obama's foreign policy and arguing that the president should "stop apologizing for our country."
Beyond foreign policy, Pawlenty, in a voice that became hoarse by the end of his speech, criticized the federal government's free spending ways: "If you have a system where people get to consume stuff, without any of their own skin in the game or responsibility, and the bill magically goes somewhere else-that's a system that is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, that describes most of our government. We need to put people in charge, give them the power to make their own decisions, not government."
Pawlenty, whose speech included a call for Americans to trust in God as the foundation of the country, opposes increasing the government's debt ceiling and favors a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
The crowd at CPAC treated both Romney and Pawlenty with regular applause. But the energy in the room skyrocketed when Paul took the stage to beat on most aspects of government.
Paul did not spare any element of Washington from his ire, including bipartisanship: "We've had way too much bipartisanship for about 60 years. It's the bipartisanship of the welfare system, the warfare system, the monetary system."
While most of the day's speakers seemed to ignore the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, Paul used it to plead for less American overseas investment.
"Foreign aid is taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries," he said in a line that garnered one of several standing ovations.