Feb. 18, 2010— -- Former Vice President Dick Cheney rallied conservative activists today during a brief yet surprise appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"A welcome like that is almost enough to make me want to run for office," Cheney said, laughing. "But I'm not going to do it."
"One Democrat said, 'There was no way in hell a Republican was going to get elected to the seat once held by Ted Kennedy.' Well, here I am," said Brown, who received a hero's welcome. "We collectively absolutely have changed the course of politics in America."
"President Obama's self-proclaimed B+ will go down in history as the biggest exaggeration since Al Gore's invention of the Internet," Romney said, referring to the president's assessment of his first year in office. "This president will not deserve the credit he will undoubtedly claim. He has prolonged the recession, expanded the pain of unemployment, and added to the burden of debt we will leave future generations.
Assailing the president's health care overhaul push, Romney said, "Obamacare is bad care for America." But he did not mention his own record enacting universal health care legislation in Massachusetts. That legislation was in some ways a model for Democrats' nationwide plans.
"President Obama, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, [Majority Leader] Harry Reid and their team have failed the American people, and that is why their majority will be out the door," added Romney, whose conference appearance will be followed by a two-month-long book tour where he will attempt to build his case against Obama.
The former governor had high praises for former president George W. Bush, who has been relatively quiet since stepping out of office, unlike Cheney, who has emerged as a leading critic of the Obama administration. Romney today argued that history will judge Bush kinder than he is portrayed now.
"When it comes to pinning blame, pin the tail on the donkeys [Democrats]," Romney said.
CPAC, which is held annually, has always drawn conservative bigwigs and is the biggest gathering of its kind, but this year, it boasts record numbers, with 10,000 expected to attend the three-day event.
The mood this year is especially buoyed by recent Democratic resignations, Brown's surprise victory in Massachusetts and tea party populism.
The draw for many is how to capitalize on the growing discontent against the administration and Congress. At the same time, the conservative movement is trying to find its own voice, as represented by the wide array of speakers -- those who are calling for a return to grassroots momentum to seasoned politicians and Congressional hopefuls looking to tap into voter discontent.
CPAC Boasts Notable Names, Rising Conservative Stars
Conservative rising star Marco Rubio, was undoubtedly the star of the day. The 39-year old son of Cuban immigrants is locked in a tight battle for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Florida. Gov. Charlie Crist, who has much of the official Republican Party establishment support, has been running slightly behind Rubio in recent polls there.
Rubio, as expected, delivered a speech charged with anti-Obama administration rhetoric as he kicked off the convention. The former Florida state House speaker panned Obama on all fronts, from health care to energy legislation to national security.
"From the tea parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the greatest single pushback in American history," Rubio declared.
"2010 is not just a choice between Republicans and Democrats. It's not just a choice between liberals and conservatives. 2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation," he added as he portrayed Obama's policies, without mentioning by him name, of that like a socialist country like the one his parents fled.
Rubio has become widely known as the "tea party senator" after a Time magazine cover questioned whether Washington would see the first representation from the tea party, a grassroots organization against big government and spending.
Both Rubio and Sen. Jim Demint, R-S.C., made fun of Obama's use of teleprompters, even though both themselves were behind one.
The 37th annual CPAC convention is charting new waters, hoping to capture the sentiment of the tea party while also shining the spotlight on its regular speakers.
DeMint today took a jab not just at Democrats but at his own party members as well and those who do not "take their constitutional oath seriously."
"I'd rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles rather than 60 who don't believe in anything," DeMint told attendees.
"I'd rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters," he added, referring to the senator from Pennsylvania who switched from the GOP to the Democratic caucus last year.
Before speeches by Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the de facto leader of the tea party movement and its biggest defender, Dick Armey, took the stage.
But the one name missing from the program is Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor and keynote speaker at the first tea party convention earlier this month turned down an invitation to speak.
CPAC Boasts Record Attendance
To build on the same kind of energy that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency, CPAC organizers are going out of their way to target younger members. There's a "Reaganpalooza" at a Capitol Hill bar and CPAC is featuring an "XPAC" for "x-treme politically active conservatives."
"This year's CPAC may matter more than most. The timing is perfect," former House speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in an op-ed in today's Washington Times. "There is no better time for the conservative movement to remind elected officials of the key values and principles that have made America great."
House Minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, talked about the changing landscape and how today's GOP leaders can govern differently than previous Democrats and Republicans.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you help elect a Republican Congress this November, and I'm fortunate enough to be elected Speaker of the House, I pledge to you right here and now: we're going to run the House differently. And I don't just mean differently than the way Democrats are running it now. I mean differently than it's been run in the past under Democrats OR Republicans," Boehner said.
"One of my first orders of business will be to post every bill online for at least 72 hours before it comes to the floor of the House for a vote," he added.
As the conservative movement finds its voice, some are seeking a return to "America's founding principles."
On Wednesday, more than 80 conservative leaders signed "The Mount Vernon statement," a "defining statement of conservative beliefs, values and principles penned by a broad coalition of conservative leaders representing a wide spectrum of the movement including fiscal, social, cultural and national security conservatives."
The statement is based on the Sharon statement, which was signed in 1960 and is credited by some as redefining the conservative movement.
"The pillars of conservatism rest on a set of common values," said Colin Hanna, president of conservative group Let Freedom Ring, who also signed the declaration.
ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf, David Chalian and Steven Portnoy contributed to this report.