WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2009 -- The chairman of the American Conservative Union slammed former President George W. Bush's record on government spending and urged his fellow conservatives to return to small-government principles.
"What the public rejected in 2008 was incompetence," ACU chairman David Keene, the chief organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is getting underway later this week, said in a speech Tuesday. "[The Obama campaign] ran against Republican performance, not conservative ideas."
Keene's speech, which he dubbed "the state of conservatism," was delivered at the National Press Club at a time when the Republican Party is engaged in a fierce debate over how to redefine itself after having been removed from power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
In years past, candidates hoping to appeal to the GOP's base in a future Republican nominating contest have used CPAC to test political themes and generate buzz.
Possible 2012 Republican presidential prospects addressing this year's CPAC include Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was also invited to address CPAC, but she is skipping it to tend to business in her home state.
"She has her problems in Alaska," Keene said. "The two leading candidates in 2012 right now are Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Sarah Palin of Alaska. They each have a problem. Romney doesn't have a job, which means he doesn't have a platform. Palin's problem is that she has a job that's 5,000 miles away."
Also skipping CPAC is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Republican who gave the GOP's response to President Barack Obama's address to Congress Tuesday night.
"We get more invites than we can accept," Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said.
The ACU chair said what Republicans need in a 2012 nominee is someone who can unite economic, national security, and social conservatives. He says the party was not able to find such a candidate in 2008 and suffered because of it.
CPAC's keynote address will be delivered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whom Keene lauded as the "smartest" Republican in Congress when it comes to applying conservative principles to new problems.
As in past years, CPAC is expected to conduct an unscientific straw poll of conference attendees. The straw poll's language has not yet been released but it is expected to include a question that will take conference attendees' initial temperature on whom they expect to be the GOP's 2012 nominee.
Keene thinks Obama's quick climb from state legislature to White House in four years has rewritten the rules of presidential politics.
"Obama proved you're never a cycle away," Keene said.
Reflecting on Obama's 2008 win, Keene argued that it did not amount to a triumph for liberalism.
The ACU chair said Obama won by neutralizing conservatives on taxes, where he promised a break to 95 percent of Americans; education, where he sounded independent from teachers' unions; and health care, where he focused his general election ads not on an expanded government role but rather his opposition to Sen. John McCain's, R-Ariz., plan to tax employer-provided health care benefits.
"(Obama) ran a centrist campaign, because he recognized something that most liberals don't: On basic core beliefs, we remain a marginally right of center country," said Keene.
Keene praised House Republican leaders for unanimously voting against the spending contained in Obama's stimulus package.
"We are free at last," said Keene, referring to congressional Republicans taking a tougher line against government spending now that Bush is gone.
Although he complimented the political skill Obama showed during the campaign, Keene argued that Democrats would lose their grip on power by confusing the public's 2008 rejection of GOP performance with a rejection of conservative goals.
He also mocked the president's call this week to cut the deficit in half, noting that cutting an estimated trillion dollar deficit in half would still leave the United States with a $500 billion deficit.
The ACU chair thinks conservatives will return to power once the public holds Obama, rather than Bush, responsible for the country's economic problems which Keene thinks cannot be fixed through government spending and industry bailouts.
"Ownership and title to America's problems is shifting as we sit here," said Keene.
In addition to discussing "the state of conservatism" Tuesday, Keene also unveiled the 2008 ACU Ratings of Congress, which measure the ideological orientation of House and Senate members by looking at 25 votes covering economic, military, and social issues.
While 31 House Republicans garnered 100 percent ACU ratings in 2008, there was only one "perfect" score in the Senate: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Obama's 2008 votes in the Senate garnered a score of 17 out of 100. While he was out of step with ACU on most issues, he did receive some points for backing earmark reform.
The first CPAC, held in 1973, was attended by 100 conservative activists and was addressed by future President Ronald Reagan. This year's gathering is expecting 8,000 conservative activists, approximately 45 percent of whom are under 30, according to Keene.
The conference begins Thursday and runs through Saturday at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.
ABC News' Ferdous Al-Faruque contributed to this report.