MANCHESTER, New Hampshire–The intra-GOP bloodshed that followed the 2012 elections is far from over, but the activists and officials who came together for an energetic day of speeches from top Republicans here showed an increasing clarity of purpose as the midterm elections gradually near.
“To repeal Obamacare, we have to win elections,” New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said in kicking off the event, dubbed the first inaugural “Freedom Summit” and hosted by two heavyweight conservative non-profits, Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul reiterated his calls for the Republican party to seek the approval of minorities and other voters who have tuned out the party, and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks delivered a brainy, captivating talk on how conservatives could learn from leading academic research to craft their message.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) spoke of the party’s need to focus on winning converts, not casting out heretics, and even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has drawn the lion’s share of criticism from the GOP Establishment for his crusades on defunding Obamacare and other issues, seemed to offer unusual flexibility in his rhetoric.
For instance, asked by reporters about former Sen. Scott Brown, who has launched a campaign for New Hampshire’s senate seat but had a relatively liberal record when he represented Massachusetts in that body, Sen. Cruz said, “Different states are different. We would not expect an individual representing New Hampshire to have the same policy positions as an individual representing California or Texas or Florida or New York.”
Cruz also touted an Iran sanctions bill he had shepherded through the Senate last week, saying “I was very proud to get the support of and to work with Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Pat Leahy and to pass the legislation.”
The Texas Republican also displayed an unusual reticence to wade into a hot button issue, declining three separate opportunities in a press conference to endorse the House GOP Budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who disavowed any interest in running for president in 2016 despite a recent report to the contrary (“good heavens, no!” she said), focused on how Republicans might improve their messaging ahead of the elections. Where Republicans “have been less successful is in messaging and talking about what we do,” she said, proposing that the Republican National Committee host a rival press briefing to vie with White House press secretary Jay Carney each day.
The libertarian Paul seemed to feel most at home in the “Live Free Or Die” state, although all of the speakers received rapacious applause from the lively crowd, with several speakers receiving multiple standing ovations.
Friday, Paul spoke for and mingled with a largely adoring crowd at a GOP event in Dover before departing for a $250-a-person fundraiser at a mansion in Hampton Falls.
He was one of three speakers, along with Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to speak to the audience about the government surveillance taking place on the cell phones each of them held in their pockets.
In response to a question from Breitbart News, Paul spoke at length about NSA surveillance and his view of Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who has leaked scores of documents about how the intelligence community gathers information.
“I’ve always said that my view [on Snowden] is somewhat mixed and that history will somewhat determine where he winds up. It hasn’t helped for him to be residing in a country that doesn’t have much privacy or much concern for civil liberties,” said Paul, whose foreign policy views have been under rigorous scrutiny in recent weeks by GOP national security hawks.
“I also don’t believe that everybody in government who handles classified information can just make their own determination that they think something’s unconstitutional and release it,” he added.
Still, those who are calling for Snowden to be shot or hanged should recognize he was acting out of what he feels was a “noble purpose,” Paul said, adding, “The other thing people need to recognize, those who are severe critics and do want to shoot him or hang him, is that we would have never found out anything about this” without his leaks.
In past presidential election cycles, “cattle calls” like the event Saturday have occurred far later on, namely after the midterm elections scheduled for November.
But with the GOP field wide open, and with upwards of ten serious candidates and no clear frontrunner, the sales pitches are beginning earlier.
Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) were noticeably absent, especially given that they are in their own ways seeking to appeal to the GOP’s conservative voters. And Brown, who was campaigning in New Hampshire elsewhere, did not come.
Huckabee delivered what was for him a fairly intense, red meat speech with angry expressions of outrage about several Obama scandals that drew raucous applause from the crowd.
Television star, real estate mogul, and conservative provocateur Donald Trump was brash as usual, dropping several expletives in his speech and detailing his interactions with BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins, whom he twice called a “sleaze bag.”
The event’s organizers had initially barred Coppins from the event, leaving him stranded in the parking lot, which Trump said he had nothing to do with. If he were scared of the media, he asked reporters, why would he take questions from a “bunch of killers like you,” prompting laughter.
As part of a greater focus on the upcoming elections, several Republicans zeroed in on Obamacare, saying that the resignation of Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius will give the GOP a new chance to spotlight the issue in upcoming confirmation hearings for Sylvia Burwell.
Democrats, Paul said, are realizing “the election is going south on them,” but what they should realize is “they passed something really antithetical to what America stands for.”