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CPAC Attendees Hear From GOP Presidential Hopefuls

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many conservative activists are at a gathering just outside Washington. It's the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. This is a must-attend event for potential GOP presidential candidates. Today, former Florida governor Jeb Bush will speak. Yesterday, there were some strong statements from other big-name Republicans expected to run, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose sudden rise in the polls, especially in Iowa, has gotten him a lot of attention. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Scott Walker has emerged as the rising star among Republicans looking at a 2016 White House run. Yesterday at CPAC, a packed ballroom checked him out and cheered him on. He spoke of taking on unions in his state, of surviving a recall attempt, and he went after President Obama's handling of the threat of terrorism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: We need a president, a leader, who will stand up and say, we will take the fight to them and not wait till they bring the fight to American soil for our children and our grandchildren.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: Then came this at a question and answer session.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Should you become commander-in-chief, how do you deal with threats such as ISIS?

GONYEA: Walker began by noting that as governor, he's received regular threat briefings from the FBI and his National Guard. And then, he finished his answer with this reference to huge pro-union protests in Wisconsin in 2011, when Walker successfully pushed to cut collective-bargaining rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALKER: If I can take on a hundred-thousand protesters, I can do the same across the world.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: Walker's critics, including the AFL-CIO, instantly accused him of likening Wisconsin union members to terrorists. Later, after his appearance, he denied doing that and accused the media of misconstruing his words. Also appearing yesterday was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, long a favorite here at CPAC.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR TED CRUZ: God bless CPAC.

(CHEERING)

CRUZ: So there's not a single Democrat here.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: It's almost like CPAC invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: That's a reference to a planned boycott by some Democrats of a speech by the Israeli leader to Congress next week. Cruz said the test of any Republican running for president is not what they've said but what they have done. In his history is a marathon speech a year and a half ago, demanding to end funding for Obamacare. He helped bring about a two-week government shutdown, though Obamacare survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CRUZ: And so I would encourage all of the men and women gathered here today demand action, not talk.

GONYEA: Though, this week, Cruz himself backed away from a threat not to fund the Department of Homeland Security in hopes of stopping the president's executive order on immigration. He accused Republican congressional leadership of cutting a deal. Then, there was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He did not give a speech at CPAC but was interviewed on stage by radio talk show host, Laura Ingraham. She ran down a list of words often used to describe him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA INGRAHAM: Short tempered, hothead, impatient - and that's just what your friends are saying.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: (Laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

INGRAHAM: How - that temperament, the presidency...

CHRISTIE: Here's the word they - here's the word they miss. The word they miss is passionate.

GONYEA: Christie was also asked about Jeb Bush and whether Bush is the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

CHRISTIE: If what happens is if the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president's going to be, then he's definitely the frontrunner. If the people of the United States decide to pick the next president of the United States and they want someone who looks at them in the eye, connects with them and is one of them, I'll do OK if I run.

GONYEA: At CPAC, it's not hard to find people skeptical of Jeb Bush's conservative credentials. Today, Bush himself appears at the conference. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.