CPAC 2011: Meet the Republican presidential contenders

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An unofficial starting gun for the race to become the Republican Party's candidate to run against Barack Obama in 2012 has been fired this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington DC.

All the main contenders apart from Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee appeared at the conference to deliver speeches designed to test the water and raise their public profile.

None have yet officially declared their candidacy.

Here, two of the 11,000 Republicans attending the conference rate the speeches given by eight of the potential 2012 candidates: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, John Thune, Haley Barbour and Rick Santorum.

The BBC's Katie Connolly, meanwhile, assesses the chances each has of winning the nomination.

The contest will step up a gear with the Iowa straw poll in August, while the first state-by-state primary elections and caucuses are due in February 2012.

Mitt Romney

Massachusetts governor 2003-7. Age: 63.

Mike: 3 out of 5

A scripted address heavy with applause lines. Mostly partisan rhetoric, it was devoid of actual proposals. The most glaring omission was any reference to ObamaCare, a sign that Romney has not figured out how to deal with the fact that Obama's healthcare bill bears a strong resemblance to the policy Romney himself implemented in Massachusetts. The upside - he read his speech from the teleprompter very well.

Charlotte: 4 out of 5

The crowd continuously erupted in applause. It was a good speech, which is why I'm giving it four marks out of five. But while Romney has many strengths, such as his strategies for encouraging entrepreneurship, I'm not backing him. I don't like his attempted overhaul of healthcare in Massachusetts - an issue that he completely avoided, by the way, in this speech.

Katie Connolly: The clear frontrunner at this stage, Romney nonetheless has serious hurdles to overcome. He earned a reputation for flip-flopping during his presidential run in 2008, and the healthcare reform package he passed in Massachusetts is a veritable albatross in a Republican primary.

Veteran US Congressman from Texas. Age: 75.

Mike: 3 out of 5

Paul had the audience with him before he opened his mouth - many of the people at CPAC were his own. But while his revolutionary rhetoric might have fired up his base, it is unlikely to appeal to those outside of his circle of intense supporters. He appeared spry and passionate, but most of the speech was recycled from his 2008 presidential run.

Charlotte: 3 out of 5

Paul's speech held the attention of the audience, but those who were not already supporters were baffled by his extreme libertarian agenda. His complete disregard for international relations and his policies based solely on philosophy makes me consider him a "novelty" candidate. His evident love for the constitution is his saving grace.

Katie Connolly: An avowed libertarian, Paul has an ardent following of like-minded ideological purists. He seemed off his game at CPAC, but that won't stop his supporters from waving his banner. Sadly for him, there's just not enough of them. A long shot.

Minnesota governor 2003-11. Age: 50.

Mike: 4 out of 5

Pawlenty used humour to engage the audience. This may have been the best zinger at the conference: "Just because we followed Greece into democracy, does not mean we need to follow them into bankruptcy." Some of his shots at Obama seemed a bit silly, on the other hand. Frequent references to God suggest he is making a major play for evangelicals.

Charlotte: 4 out of 5

Pawlenty made a powerful case for "commonsense spending principles" and showed a strong belief in American exceptionalism. He's a strong candidate. I worry, however, about the energy policies he has implemented in Minnesota, which involve a lot of government intervention, and mandate the use of renewables - in my view climate change is a complete joke with no scientific backing.

Katie Connolly: Pawlenty is a likable Christian with a record as Minnesota Governor that most conservatives would be proud of, but he hasn't yet made a splash. He and Romney appeal to the same set of Republican voters, and so far, Romney is winning them over. Still, he's a top tier candidate, particularly if Republicans opt for electability over fiery dogma.

Speaker of House of Representatives 1995-99. Age: 67.

Mike: 4 out of 5

Image caption,
"The Obama administration is wrong on terrorism, wrong on Iran, wrong on Hezbollah, wrong on the Muslim Brotherhood."

Gingrich is always an impressive speaker, and here at CPAC, he demonstrated his command of a wide range of issues. I particularly liked his aggressive challenge to Obama on energy - a winning issue for the party that other Republicans should embrace.

Charlotte: 3 out of 5

I liked his proposals on energy, but he seemed to wholly ignore issues such as social security and healthcare reform. Also, I've heard him make an almost identical speech before.

Katie Connolly: Gingrich is an idea machine and Republicans harbour nostalgia for his time as Speaker, but a fiery temper and messy divorces won't help his cause. He's flirted with running for president before but never made it official. An outside chance.

Indiana governor since 2005. Age: 61.

Image caption,
"If our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won't have much strength and, eventually, we won't have peace."

Mike: 4.5 out of 5

Though he was scripted, like Romney, Daniels's speech had a more natural - dare I say Reaganesque - feel to it. He incorporated sly humour and some clever analogies into what was primarily a speech on the nation's financial state. I was impressed with his pitch to grow the party and his command of facts and figures. Very presidential.

Charlotte: 4 out of 5

If he can cultivate a bit more charisma, My Man Mitch can truly become a competitive candidate. His track record as a fiscal conservative - balancing budgets and turning the state of Indiana around - is a great starting point for a presidential campaign.

Katie Connolly: Daniels is fast becoming the darling of the Republican Party's fiscal conservatives but has yet to captivate social conservatives. He has trouble mustering passion for issues like abortion and gay marriage. But if the economy is still the dominant concern come primary time, Daniels will be in an enviable position.

South Dakota senator since 2005. Age: 50.

Mike: 4 out of 5

Image caption,
"The closest I've come to being on a reality show is C-Span's live coverage of the Senate floor."

It was primarily an autobiographical talk about how his family came over from Norway to the US and how he unseated Democratic Senate minority leader Tom Daschle in 2004. The latter was a clever hint that he is "giantslayer", the former really didn't resonate. Definitely has the most presidential looks of the potential Republican candidates, and he struck a chord challenging the Washington DC way of doing things.

Charlotte: 4 out of 5

Thune came across as an agreeable candidate. He gave careful attention to balanced budgets, the constitution, and international relations. His rhetoric at times seemed familiar, but he received a warm reception.

Katie Connolly: The chiselled South Dakotan could be cast as president in a film, but in the real world he lacks a national profile - he's unknown. Republican bigwigs have high hopes for him, but his vote for President George W Bush's economic bailout package may prove toxic for Republican primary voters. A serious contender - but with a long road to the top of the pack, he may have a better chance in 2016.

Mississippi governor since 2003. Aged: 63.

Mike: 2.5 out of 5

I liked Barbour's argument that fighting entitlement fraud is a means of saving money and that this could save billions at a national level. He spoke slowly, in his thick southern drawl, and seemed to be running out of steam towards the end of his speech. Overall, at CPAC he was a bit flat and did little to help his presidential chances.

Image caption,
"Every dollar of tax taken by government is a dollar that can’t be invested."

Charlotte: 2 out of 5

Barbour deserves great respect for carrying out "dangerous" spending cuts (as opponents describe them) and ensuring that government benefits only are received by those who are genuinely eligible. But this speech was long and drawn out, and many struggled to pay attention.

Katie Connolly: The brash and popular Barbour ticks a lot of boxes: conservative economic management of Mississippi, reform of medical malpractice laws, a catchy turn of phrase and southern credentials. But his past as a political lobbyist in an era where Washington is widely derided as a corrupted den of "politics as usual" is a disadvantage. Only a real chance if the frontrunners crash and burn.

Pennsylvania senator 1995-2007. Age: 52.

Image caption,
"President Obama has refused to look at the situation in Iran and Egypt and... to call evil, evil. To identify the enemy."

Mike: 2.5 out of 5

Santorum is so strongly identified with opposition to abortion and gay marriage that there's hardly any need for him to mention those subjects, but he didn't talk about much else. He had nothing to say on priority issues for voters, such as the economy and high gas prices. More of a niche candidate than a genuine contender.

Charlotte: 2 out of 5

An uninspiring speech - rather vague, familiar rhetoric, hardly anything new. Not surprisingly, he didn't get a particularly enthusiastic reception.

Katie Connolly: A prickly ideologue, Santorum's staunch social conservatism has strong appeal on the fringes, but he isn't considered a viable candidate by mainstream Republicans. An unlikely choice.

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