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Conservative Confab Rallies Behind Wisconsin Victory


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. It seems that every week, there's a new study out on political polarization in America. More and more, we talk to, vote with, and get our news from only those who think the way that we do. So, this week we sent reporters on a couple of polar expeditions to political gatherings on the left and the right. And in a moment, we'll hear from NPR's Scott Horsley at Netroots Nation in Rhode Island. First, now here's NPR's David Schaper at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: There's definitely a buzz of conservative excitement here in President Obama's hometown, or actually just outside of it here at the Rosemont Convention Center near O'Hare Airport, where a couple of thousand of conservative activists have gathered for CPAC Chicago. One of the main reasons for this buzz is what happened earlier this week just about an hour drive north of here in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker easily won reelection, soundly defeating a Democratic effort to recall him from office.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: Mr. President, did you hear Scott Walker won in a landslide?


SCHAPER: This is one of CPAC's featured speakers, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

PAUL: Now, it's hard for me to say that without gloating. I'm going to try again.

SCHAPER: So he did, and then Paul added.

PAUL: You know, I wonder if it worries anybody over at Team Obama. I think it might.

SCHAPER: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum began his remarks as he did so many times during the Republican presidential primaries this year.

RICK SANTORUM: This is still the most important election in the history of our country, and I can tell you I feel a little bit better about that election since what happened on Tuesday up in Wisconsin. God bless them up there.


SCHAPER: Speaker after speaker praised Wisconsin voters and Governor Walker, invoking Walker's name at least as often as that of conservative icon Ronald Reagan's. And no one basked in the Walker glow more than Wisconsin U.S. Senator Ron Johnson.

SENATOR RON JOHNSON: By the way, did you catch that I'm from Wisconsin?


SCHAPER: And Johnson went back to that well repeatedly.

JOHNSON: I have always been proud to be from Wisconsin, to be the senator from Wisconsin, but I have never been more proud than I was Tuesday night.

SCHAPER: It was clear at this Confab that conservatives want Wisconsin's energy to fuel their fall campaigns, and Johnson says they must keep their energy flowing.

JOHNSON: I realize our volunteers are weary. I realize our donors are tapped out. And I realize how obnoxious my response is to that: tough.


SCHAPER: The list of CPAC speakers included a chorus line of potential vice presidential picks, several of whom seemed to be campaigning actively for the nod. Among them were some of the Republicans' current bumper crop of governors, including John Kasich of Ohio, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. All praised Walker and touted their own efforts to take on public employee unions and democratic legislators and government spending. They were preaching to the choir, of course, and none with more conviction than New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I remind my staff of this every day and I want to remind all of you today, the most powerful thing on our side is this: we're right and they're wrong.


SCHAPER: Fiery and funny, Christie had the crowd on its feet several times, urging them to work for a win in November but never mentioning the name of the party's presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney. Romney was not much of a focus here at CPAC Chicago, but Cheryl Thomas of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania says the enthusiasm for him is growing among conservatives.

CHERYL THOMAS: Everyone here realizes how important it is to turn the tide, to make our country great again.

SCHAPER: But ask Donita Curry of Speer, Illinois if she's enthusiastic about Romney...

DONITA CURRY: I'd have to say no.

SCHAPER: But Curry adds that Romney has been saying the right things to conservatives.

CURRY: He's starting to get on board. He's realizing what needs to happen and who's going to help him accomplish it.

SCHAPER: Curry and her two friends from the Peoria Area Tea Party Patriots say Romney needs to choose a conservative running mate. A straw poll was taken among more than 500 attendees here asking their preference for vice president. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who did not attend, won with more than 30 percent of the vote. Chris Christie was a distant second with 14 percent. And a dark horse with growing support is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.