Candidates take aim at common enemy, not each other at CPAC

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., waves to the crowd as he takes the stage Friday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The anticipated race to the right at the annual CPAC gathering of conservative activists has, instead, been largely a cathartic opportunity to bash Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

Even natural rivals among the potential Republican presidential contenders who normally would be trying to outdo each other in proving they are more conservative have held their fire in talking about each other, reserving it instead for the Democrats.

“That’s who’s the 800-pound gorilla right now,” said Charles Harvey, of Charleston, referring to Clinton during a break at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is a conservative rallying point.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is considering a run for the White House, skipped CPAC, leading some political observers to say he wanted to avoid a confrontation with far-right activists who view him as a liberal when even being considered a moderate can be the kiss of death at CPAC.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush risked that in appearing Friday, as did Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But both emerged mostly unscathed, primarily by focusing their criticism on the common enemy.

Bush, whose middle-of-the-road appeal is often touted as his strength in seeking the White House, drew the most “boos” from the audience during his 20-minute appearance. But the real vitriol was reserved for Clinton.

Some of the speakers at the convention have equated a Clinton White House to a third Obama term. The president and the former secretary of state were repeatedly vilified for the Affordable Care Act — known as Obamacare — and the perceived loss of U.S. prestige in the world.

“Our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us,” Rubio said Friday, repeating a variation of a line often used by the speakers this week about the “Obama-Clinton” foreign policy.

He equated the words “Hillary Clinton” to the one word answer: “Yesterday.” Obama was called “Failed.”

“Hillary’s war in Libya is a perfect example,” said Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, joining in the Democrat bashing. “Hillary’s war made us less safe — Libya’s less stable.

“It’s time for Hillary Clinton to permanently retire.”

Attendees said they were fine with the blistering tone, as long as it was directed at the Democrats.

“It’s not all Hillary bashing, but a lot of it is Hillary bashing,” said Sam Wigle, a junior at Clemson University and among a large cadre of young conservative attending the convention.

All of the unannounced candidates avoided attacks on their potential GOP primary opponents, except one: Developer Donald Trump went after Bush.

“He’s in favor of Common Core; he’s weak on immigration,” said Trump. “I don’t see there’s any way. You people are going to have to make your own choice.”

Bush was the last of the potential candidates to speak at the gathering, which wraps up Saturday with a straw poll by the attendees of their presidential choices. He did face a slight rebellion when dozens of tea party-aligned Floridians walked out of his speech in quiet protest.

Wigle said the Republicans still have time to work out their divisions and settle on their candidate.

“We’re so far away from the actual voting,” he said.

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