09/23/2011 09:36 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

CPAC Florida: Republican Presidential Candidates, Activists Meet In Orlando (LIVE UPDATES)

A day after GOP debate in Orlando, Florida, the Republican presidential hopefuls are addressing supporters and activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

You can watch the event live here and follow all the updates below.

09/23/2011 4:12 PM EDT

CPAC Florida's Al Cardenas Speaks With HuffPost

HuffPost's Jon Ward reports from Orlando:

Al Cardenas, a veteran Republican official who chairs the group hosting the massive conservative conference here Friday, said Texas Gov. Rick Perry has demonstrated he has "strikeout potential" with his multiple gaffes in his first three debates as a presidential candidate. Still, he said Perry is down, but not out.

"Clearly the stuff on Social Security and some of the other issues ... showed that there's a strikeout potential there," Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But it takes three outs to get somebody out of the inning, and I don't believe any of these items on their own are a knockout punch."

"But the truth of the matter is, you've got to stop getting into trouble. He's got to get himself out of these issues," said Cardenas, who is a past chairman of the Florida GOP. "And I think time helps you do that."

Cardenas said one of the biggest differences between Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- who most observers agree has outmaneuvered Perry in all three debates in which the Texan has participated -- is that Romney has run for president before.

"Romney's been vulnerable on some issues but he's been at this so much longer that he's been able to weather those storms," Cardenas said. "I'm predicting that Rick Perry -- as clumsy as it is now to deal with Social Security, immigration and couple of these other health issues -- that as time goes on, he'll weather the storm and continue to be a formidable candidate."

Cardenas conceded there is not a lot of time for Perry to do so, with only a few months until the first primary states caucus and go to the polls. Iowa, which goes first, and South Carolina, which goes third, are of particular importance for Perry, and will likely set up a battle for Florida, which is intent on going fifth, though the GOP primary calendar is still being worked out among the states.

"If he falters in either of those states," Cardenas said of Iowa and South Carolina, "he'll be in trouble."

Cardenas's group is hosting the Conservative Political Action Conference Committee Florida meeting. It's the first time they've done a regional version of the annual national meeting. CPAC was started in 1973 and has become a massive gathering of conservatives in Washington, D.C.

Cardenas said that while many Republicans agree with Perry that Social Security needs to be reformed, the Texan's rhetoric about the program being a "Ponzi scheme" was ill-advised.

"When you call Social Security a Ponzi scheme, that tends to get some folks concerned. I think the electorate in a Republican primary is open to reform ideas ... but they're not willing to see us do away with it or to consider it in danger," he said. "So when you use wording that may put it in an endangered category in the minds of a listener, that's when you gotta explain yourself a little better."

09/23/2011 3:37 PM EDT

Ann Coulter Piles On Perry

HuffPost's Sam Stein reports from Orlando:

Speaking to a still energized CPAC crowd, Ann Coulter continued the conservative media's pile on over Rick Perry's poor debate performance Thursday night.

"I don't think the crowd is really buying Rick Perry's explanation of why illegal immigrants are getting in-state tuition in Texas," said the conservative firebrand and best-selling author. "But I thought it was nice that he gave his explanation in Spanish."

The crowd booed the first part and laughed at the second, though it was not entirely clear where the joke was directed. It could have been Perry's once-stated support for bi-national health care, but seemed more likely to be directed at his sputtering performance.

09/23/2011 2:49 PM EDT

Jon Huntsman: 'I'm Not Going To Pander'

HuffPost's Sam Stein reports from Orlando:

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman went back to the well once more on Friday, telling a gathering of conservatives that he unapologetically believes in evolution, civil unions and the science of climate change.

"I'm not pretending to be someone I am not," he said. "I'm not going to pander."

The applause in the crowd at CPAC Florida was minimal (perhaps a handful of attendees total expended the energy to slap their hands together). But it did increase a touch when Huntsman placed his comments in the context of broadening the Republican base.

"We must appeal to the Tea Party and to conservative Republicans," he said. "But we must also bring in to the tent moderate republicans, independents and, yes, conservative Democrats."

Huntsman has tried this tack before, only to earn more attention from the national press than plaudits from his party. So it might have been by design that he sprinkled in a bit of partisan red meat along with his calls for reason-based moderation on Friday. "I'm the only candidate who unequivocally supports the [Paul] Ryan [budget] plan," he said, to a slightly more positive reception than his line on science earned.

09/23/2011 2:19 PM EDT

Republican Candidates Pivot To Obama, Attack Health Care Overhaul

HuffPost's Jon Ward reports from Orlando:

Jobs and the economy are the biggest issue for most Americans, and most of the Republican presidential candidates are trying to shape their campaigns to fit those concerns.

But here at a gathering of the most conservative members of the Republican party grassroots, there were renewed urgent calls to defeat President Obama in 2012, in order to prevent his health care overhaul from being fully implemented.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) both cast the issue in existential terms.

Bachmann, in a morning speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference Florida, said Obama's health law has to be torn out "root and branch" before the bulk of it goes into effect in 2014.

"Otherwise we'll have socialized medicine in this country forever. You see 2012 is it. It's our last chance to get rid of this bill," Bachmann said.

Santorum went further.

"This is about whether America, in its very essence, will continue," he said of the election.

If Obama's health law is fully implemented, Santorum said, Americans will "lose the very freedoms that our Founders fought for and died for."

This is a line of thinking that politicians such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others have voiced since the law passed in March 2010.

The health care issue dominated early 2011 to the point that many conservatives believed health care and entitlements would be the defining issues of the 2012 election. Ryan's budget out of the House received much attention, and for a while it looked like Democrats were going to run in 2012 in large part on an attack of the plan's proposal to convert Medicare to a voucher-type system.

All that focus on health care was a major reason Mitt Romney was viewed as a flawed candidate, since his health care overhaul as Massachusetts governor shared the federal overhaul's health insurance mandate.

Over the past several months, however, the economic recovery has stalled and fears about another recession have spiked. The focus has become jobs. And while the conservative base still cares about health care, even grassroots conservatives know the election will be won or lost on whether voters believe the Republican candidate can arrest and reverse the country's downward economic spiral.

09/23/2011 1:44 PM EDT

Rick Perry Address His Debate Performance

HuffPost's Sam Stein reports from Orlando:

Implicitly addressing what was widely considered his poor debate performance the night before, Texas Governor Rick Perry told a gathering of conservative voters here on Friday that rhetorical chops do not a good president make. “It's not the smoothest candidate or the slickest debater that we need to elect,” he said. "Remember President Clinton?" he continued. "He could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and then the next day be against ice cubes."

Perry's image took a bit of a hit the night before when he fumbled efforts to tar Romney as a flip-flopper and, more generally, seemed lifeless in his effort to defend his record.

The Texas Republican stuck to the script on Friday morning, choosing to focus much of his attention on President Obama, though he did take a jab at Romney on heath care, arguing that Romney's Massachusetts plan resembled a policy out of "Western Europe."

09/23/2011 12:40 PM EDT

Perry Surrogate: Romney's Got More Mojo Than In 2008

HuffPost's Sam Stein reports from Orlando:

Gov. Mitt Romney's polish stood in contrast to what was near-universally described as an oft-meandering, many times lifeless performance by Gov. Rick Perry. And in the debate's aftermath, even surrogates for the Texas Republican were complimentary of the way that Romney has grown as a candidate.

"I think he is more confident than he was [in the past]. I think he feels his topics better. He has been out there longer," said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback who, just this week, endorsed Perry.

Brownback wasn't exclusively flattering. He raised questions about Romney's ideological sincerity, a common bête noire for conservatives. "You have got this question about where is he really when he gets in the Oval Office," he said.

But among those who can attest to the evolution of Mitt, the Kansas Republican has a unique vantage point, having been on the debate stage with Romney during the last presidential cycle.

"If you have been out there batting the ball for a few years it helps," Brownback acknowledged.

Read more here.

09/23/2011 12:17 PM EDT

FreedomWorks: Tea Party Could Soften On Romney

HuffPost's Jon Ward reports from Orlando:

The head of an influential Tea Party group that has been outspoken against Mitt Romney signaled Friday that their opposition to the former Massachusetts governor is softening as Rick Perry falters.

"Romney has an opportunity to rehabilitate himself," Matt Kibbe, chairman and CEO of FreedomWorks, told The Huffington Post in an interview.


When HuffPost asked Kibbe if it would be a defeat for the Tea Party if Romney becomes the GOP nominee, Kibbe answered: "It depend on what Romney wins the nomination."

"I think there's still a possibility for Romney to define himself. He's entrenched on health care and we just disagree on that. But you know, what if he came up with a bold tax reform plan? What if he came up, as he has promised to do, with a plan to reform entitlements and balance the budget? I would be open for all of these guys to be better than they are today," Kibbe said.

Read more here.

09/23/2011 11:19 AM EDT

The Weekly Standard Slams Perry's Debate Performance

Another brutal review from the right of Perry's performance comes from the Weekly Standard:

"No front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry. It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him," the Standard wrote in an editorial.

The editorial's larger point is one of lament that the GOP field is not stronger, and another call for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to jump into the race.

We do ask (again!), with a month left before filing deadlines: Is that all there is? Watching this week as Mitch Daniels intelligently promoted his book and Paul Ryan cogently explained why crony capitalism is inconsistent with the rule of law, we of course lamented that neither of them had stepped up to the challenge. Jeb Bush apparently isn't getting in. That would seem to leave Chris Christie.

Read more here.

--Jon Ward

09/23/2011 11:15 AM EDT

Santorum Responds To Debate Crowd Booing Gay Soldier

HuffPost's Sam Stein, reporting from Orlando, follows up on the most provocative moment from Thursday night's Republican presidential primary debate -- when a few members of the crowd booed an openly gay soldier for asking whether he would have to hide his sexuality under a future, Republican administration.

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), to whom the question was addressed, responded that he would reinstate "don't ask, don't tell," the federal policy that prohibited LGBT individuals from serving openly in the military. And when pressed on the matter after the debate ended, the Pennsylvania Republican argued that repeal of the policy had been harmful for those gay soldiers as well.

"We executed a policy that I think was detrimental to everyone, including them, in my opinion because sex and sexual preference should not be an issue in the military, period," he said. "And it should not be something that is demonstrated in any shape or form in the military. And it shows how much our culture has changed that this is even a subject to be debated within the military."

Santorum didn't elaborate on how allowing open service was detrimental for gay soldiers. He did, however, say that he "would grandfather in people who, because of the [DADT repeal] policy, came out."

"It's not their fault," he said.

As for the boos from the crowd at the debate, Santorum said: "I didn't hear the boos so I can't make anything from something I didn't hear."

Read more here.

09/23/2011 10:31 AM EDT

Rick Santorum Takes Shot At Rick Perry

HuffPost's Jon Ward caught up with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa), who had another strong performance in the debate last night and has a lot of political observers buzzing that he might be ready to take Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn) place as the top Tea Party candidate in Iowa.

Santorum said he has maintained all along that if he just stayed in the race and kept contrasting himself with other candidates, he could win Iowa. And he took a shot at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was on the losing end of an exchange about immigration with Santorum last night.

"In the debates, I'm sure a lot of Rick Perry's supporters from these early primary states that jumped onto the bandwagon, after watching last night are saying, 'Huh, gee, maybe I should have waited,'" Santorum said.

"I don't think anyone who supported me said that last night."