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Analysis: How Potential 2016 Contenders Fared at CPAC

A brief review of CPAC speeches with potential 2016 implications, listed in chronological order:

Ben Carson: A good choice to kick off the conference on Thursday morning, drawing a large, enthusiastic crowd. Carson didn't disappoint his legions of grassroots admirers, hammering on the failures of big government liberalism, and calling for the abolishment of the IRS. (Speaking of the IRS, is anyone surprised by 
this development?)

Chris Christie: Though Rand Paul supporters booed his name on Friday, Christie was well-received by a large crowd on Thursday afternoon. He opted for a Q&A format, responding to tough but fair questioning from conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. I tend to agree with Breitbart's John Sexton, who thinks Christie helped himself overall. The governor dismissed concerns over his low polling numbers (nationally and at home), noting that the election isn't "next week," and vowing to run a spirited, aggressive campaign if and when he gets in. Asked what he gave up for lent, Christie joked that he tried to deprive himself of the New York Times, but his priest nixed that idea as hardly sacrificial. The Times, incidentally, lived up to Christie's allegations of bias, describing the CPAC ballroom as dotted with "many empty seats" during his presentation.  Most other outlets accurately called the room a "full house," or "mostly packed."

Carly Fiorina: One of the breakout stars of the conference, the former CEO and Senate candidate drew loud applause for her direct, unapologetic salvos against Hillary Clinton's foreign policy record.  One could almost sense an instant consensus forming that Fiorina would be an asset on the GOP debate stage.  Fairly or unfairly, it's helpful to have a conservative woman taking the aggressive rhetorical fight to Hillary Clinton.

Ted Cruz: Unsurprisingly, Texas' junior Senator was greeted very warmly by attendees, breezing through a friendly back-and-forth with Sean Hannity after delivering some opening remarks.  Cruz cracked that CPAC could have featured a speech from Hillary Clinton, but they couldn't "find a foreign nation to foot the bill."  A very solid burn.

Scott Walker: The Walker buzz is real.  The room was packed and raucous for the governor's remarks; he had the feel of a top-tier candidate, if not a frontrunner.  Walker's address started off a bit forced and shouty, almost as if he was trying to hard to shake off the (lazy) conventional wisdom knock that he's "boring" or "bland."  He seemed conversant on foreign policy, but the speech didn't hit its stride until the passage about his tremendous accomplishments in Wisconsin -- including the all-but-guaranteed implementation of Right to Work legislation.  Walker shined brightest when he swatted aside a pro-union heckler who interrupted his speech.  His lowest moment came in an answer on ISIS.  Despite his intentions, his phrasing came across as unfair, crass and demagogic.  With the 'gotcha' media hungry for gaffes to exploit, Walker needs to learn from this experience.

Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor focused on three issues: Repealing Obamacare in its entirety (chiding Congressional Republicans for policy incoherence and cowardice), rolling back Common Core, and fighting radical Islamic terrorism.

Marco Rubio:  Sounding very much like a presidential candidate, the Florida Senator cast Hillary Clinton as a relic of the past, assured conservatives that he's learned his lesson on immigration, and highlighted his extraordinary American story.  This line is especially moving.  National Review's Charles Cooke summed up the case for Rubio, calling him the best communicator in the Republican Party, who's also knowledgeable on policy substance.

Rick Perry: Perhaps the most intriguing of the 'reboot' candidates, Perry subtly poked fun at his most infamous 2012 stumble by introducing -- and executing -- a three-pronged argument.

John Bolton: The no-nonsense former UN ambassador unleashed a relentless, detailed critique of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy.

Rand Paul: The libertarian-leaning Republican drew a huge crowd of young, eager supporters who cheered and chanted throughout the Kentucky Senator's address.  Paul talked about the importance of national security, but warned that America must not lose its values in that pursuit.  He criticized Obamacare and President Obama's illegal executive amnesty (a common theme throughout the conference), closing with a rousing pro-liberty appeal. During the question-and-answer session, Paul confirmed that his "bad" hair is, in fact, real, drawing laughter and applause.

Rick Santorum: Last cycle's second-place finisher focused primarily on foreign policy and national security issues, heavily criticizing the Obama administration over the Netanyahu flap (also a popular line of attack throughout CPAC).

Jeb Bush: In a highly-anticipated appearance, the former Florida Governor performed ably during an extended exchange with Sean Hannity, who pressed Bush on immigration and Common Core.  Team Jeb bused in some supporters for the event, perhaps to counter the rumored walk-out by Paul backers.  Bush ended up being welcomed with a standing ovation from most attendees, though some of his answers elicited a smattering of boos and disgruntled shouts.  The walk-out mostly fizzled, drawing a tiny fraction of the audience.  The establishment favorite and prolific fundraiser presented himself as a forward-looking, reform-minded conservative, tailoring his answers on certain hot-button issues to the conservative audience -- but without backing down from controversial positions.  Bush said that his priority is to show voters that he really cares about improving people's lives.

Less likely 2016 entrants Mike Pence, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump also addressed the conference. I'll leave you with my Thursday afternoon Fox News appearance from CPAC, during which I (shamelessly) donned my 
End of Discussion pin:

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