WASHINGTON – Conservative activists, united in opposition to President Barack Obama's agenda, celebrated their rising political prospects on Friday and confidently predicted big Republican gains in November's congressional elections.
At an annual conference of grassroots conservatives, activists promised to crank up the pressure on Obama and his fellow Democrats and marveled at the political turnaround since he entered the White House in January 2009 on a wave of goodwill and high expectations.
Since then, Obama's approval ratings have slumped and his legislative agenda has stalled amid public unhappiness with the sputtering economy, high jobless rate and growing budget deficits.
"President Obama has lost his mojo," U.S. Representative Steve King said. "If we stand our ground as conservatives, he's not going to get it back."
With about 10,000 registered participants, this year's Conservative Political Action Conference was the largest and most festive yet and had to be moved to a larger Washington hotel.
"A year ago, this meeting was big and scared. Now it's big and excited," said anti-tax leader Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. He said Obama had proven his skill at his former job of community organizing.
"He has done a lot to organize conservatives," Norquist said.
The conference featured "Tea Party" activists with yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags mingling with pin-striped corporate lawyers as they listened to speakers and workshops on national security, immigration, healthcare and "the hoax of global warming."
A large exhibit hall housed displays and booths for organizations ranging from traditional and powerful conservative lobbies like the National Rifle Association to one-time fringe groups like the John Birch Society.
'A REAL POSITIVE SPIRIT'
"There is a real positive spirit here now," said Matt Schlapp, a Republican consultant and political director for former President George W. Bush during his first term.
"All segments of the conservative coalition are unified in a way that hasn't happened in a long time. No one is talking about their differences anymore," he said.
Republicans are expected to make big gains in November's congressional elections and could challenge Democratic majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Obama's legislative initiatives such as healthcare reform, climate change and financial regulatory reform have ground to a halt in the face of unified Republican opposition and his slumping poll numbers.
The shift in political winds, seen most clearly in last month's Republican victory in a Massachusetts Senate election, was driven by concern about Obama's agenda, particularly among independents, the activists said.
"It was Barack Obama who reminded Americans that limited government is something worth saving," said David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, a sponsor of the event.
"People are scared. They have a sense that the country is off track, that it is changing in ways they don't want it to change," he said.
The conference, which runs from Thursday through Saturday, featured a host of Republican politicians, including potential 2012 presidential candidates Mitt Romney, who spoke on Thursday, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who spoke on Friday.
Another possible presidential contender, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, skipped the conference, while former Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise appearance on Thursday and predicted Obama would be a one-term president.
Attendees cast votes in a straw poll of possible Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination. The winner will be announced on Saturday night.
"The comeback of conservatives in this country was a surprise to just about everyone but us," Pawlenty told the gathering.
Pawlenty noted golfer Tiger Woods was apologizing for his sexual affairs on Friday and suggested the activists could learn from Woods's wife, who reportedly took a golf club to Woods's car on Thanksgiving night.
"I think we should take a page out of her playbook and take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country," Pawlenty said.
But despite all the confident talk, some Republicans warned against complacency.
"Don't get too overconfident," John Ashcroft, a former U.S. senator who was the first attorney general under George W. Bush, cautioned the activists. "Keep working. Keep the intensity up and keep the energy up."
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