Amid a euphoria unimaginable just a year ago, activists Thursday at the largest conservative gathering in the country plotted how to ride the "tea party" wave to sweeping Republican victories in this year's elections - and to force the GOP to govern as conservatives after the vote.
But on the opening day of the biggest-ever Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the tenuous relationship among conservatives, tea party activists and the Republican Party establishment was also repeatedly on display. Tea party backers vowed not to be taken for granted and insisted that Republicans prove they have learned the lessons of their past support for big government.
"Let's not leave them to their own devices," said Dick Armey, former House majority leader and now chairman of FreedomWorks, a prime mover of the tea party phenomenon. Republicans "must come to us and show us they're worthy of our loyalty. We don't owe them."
Added John O'Hara, who helped organize some of the earliest tea party gatherings, "Let's not let a good counterrevolution go to waste."
New Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Florida and former Vice President Dick Cheney provided the star power on CPAC's first day, while House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio begged attendees for help, promising to reject the old ways of both parties and usher in a new era of transparency in government.
A year ago, CPAC convened as Democrats, under a newly elected President Obama, were using their massive congressional majorities to pass the stimulus bill and lay the groundwork for far-reaching health care and climate change legislation.
But Mr. Obama's legislative agenda stalled and Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey governorships, as well as Mr. Brown's victory in Massachusetts last month, have left conservatives optimistic of winning back the upper hand.
A key difference at this year's CPAC is the emergence of the tea party movement, which is barely a year old. The famous on-air tirade by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange about the need for an anti-government "Chicago tea party" was broadcast exactly one year ago Friday.
At one point in Thursday's program, a speaker asked for a show of hands of who had been involved in a tea party event. At least 15 percent of those in the ballroom raised their hands.
For the newly energized tea party activists, accountability is the key, Mr. O'Hara said in an interview. He said that electing people is the first step, but holding elected officials accountable is just as important.
"We need to keep in mind always and forever that Republicanism is not necessarily a sturdy vehicle for the ideals of conservatism or the tea party," he told The Washington Times.
Mr. Boehner made clear that he understands the difficult balance Republicans will have to strike as they work to harness the passion that underlies the nascent movement.
"The Republican Party should not attempt to co-opt the tea parties. I think that's the dumbest thing in the world," Mr. Boehner said. "What we will do, as long as I'm the leader, is respect them, listen to them and walk amongst them. The other party will never, ever do that."
If Republicans retake the House this fall, he said, he will impose new openness rules, including having bills available well before members are asked to vote on them. Mr. Boehner acknowledged that this would be a break with the practice under Democrats and with the way Republicans operated during their 12 years in power after the 1994 elections.
"I'll pledge to you right here, right now, that we're going to run the House differently," he said.
But even as speakers tried to break with the past, Libertarian Party Executive Director Wes Benedict chided the conservatives, saying they themselves have fallen short of their ideals when in power.
"It's interesting that conservatives only notice 'big government' when it's something their political enemies want. When conservatives want it, apparently it doesn't count," he said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the only speaker to mount a sustained defense of the Bush administration, saying "history will judge President Bush far more kindly" than the treatment he's received from Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney ticked off Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform act, his work to end the 2001 recession and his war on terrorism as key accomplishments.
"He kept us safe, and I respect his silence even in the face of assaults on his record that come from this administration," Mr. Romney said, adding praise for "our 'I don't give a damn vice president, Dick Cheney.' "
Mr. Cheney was a surprise guest at the conference and received a strong ovation.
Introduced by his daughter Liz, he flatly predicted that Mr. Obama will not win re-election in 2012.
"I think Barack Obama is a one-term president," he said.
President Obama was a frequent target of barbs, and the presence of a teleprompter at the lectern was the source of repeated jokes about the president's reliance on them in his public addresses.
Another target was Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party last year, helping give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority until Mr. Brown's election.
One Republican who was clearly not a crowd favorite was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Mr. Rubio's opponent for the Republican Senate nomination. The mention of his name drew boos from the audience.
For his part Mr. Rubio, who gave the opening address, called the political upheaval of the past year "the single greatest political pushback in American history."
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