TIME Newsmaker Interview

Interview: Rick Santorum Eyes 2016

Rick Santorum takes the stage to speak during day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Rick Santorum takes the stage to speak during day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., March 7, 2014. Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

In an interview with TIME, the former Pennsylvania senator who finished second to Romney in 2012 says he's sure he would have defeated Obama had he won the GOP nomination. He also previews some of the themes he might emphasize should he run for president in 2016

Two years after finishing second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Rick Santorum sounds like he’s ready to try again.

In a wide-ranging interview with TIME on Thursday, the former Pennsylvania senator said he was sure he would have defeated Barack Obama had he won the Republican nomination, panned the President’s foreign policy (“what he’s done is start a nuclear arms race”) and offered a preview of a potential 2016 message that might help Republicans connect with “the average guy.”

Santorum, a longtime social-issues warrior who won 11 primary and caucus states two years ago, said he won’t have to talk as much about them if he runs again, because his conservative positions are well known to the GOP’s base. “This time around I don’t have to go out and prove by bona fides on being a conservative,” he says. “I can focus in on how I differentiate myself from the rest of the field and how I think we can develop a winning message for the fall.”

Even Santorum’s current gig as CEO of the Christian movie company Echolight Studios serves, in some ways, as preparation for another try at the GOP nomination. “I’m a storyteller. I see this in some respects as refining my craft,” he says. “Reagan did it the other way, right?”

Below are excerpts of the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:

Have you gotten the itch to get back into politics?

Absolutely. I can’t sit here and watch our country decline in stature as dramatically as it has in the last five years and not be concerned about the future of America. I just look at the overall culture of the country and see a lot of people who are fearful, don’t believe that good times are coming, feel like there are people out there left behind. That’s a very dangerous thing for a democracy.

With regard to Crimea, what would you do differently than Obama?

It’s really important to understand this situation didn’t happen overnight. This was five years in the making. Year one, we pull our missile defense system out of Poland and the Czech Republic. So we send a signal: we’re going to reset with Russia, and Putin is going to work with us. What do we get for that? Virtually nothing.

So you go through a whole variety of other things—from what we did in Iran during the revolution, which was nothing; turning our back on Mubarak; what we did in Syria. I would not have drawn a red line on chemical weapons. I thought it was a mistake to do it. But he did. And he didn’t follow through. He punted to Putin. What we’ve seen over time is the President serially deferring, backing away from red lines or lines in the sand, saying that the US needs not to be involved in all these things. You send a signal.

This president has singlehandedly elevated Vladimir Putin from a babysitter over a bunch of oligarchs to a world leader who’s now grabbing territory with no consequence. What can you do now given this? Well, you can try to repair an image, to show you mean what you say and you will stand by the countries that we have promised to stand by. We have not done so in Ukraine. So now what do you think if you’re Lithuania, Estonia, Poland? What do you think if you’re Georgia? You think the U.S.’s commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. And as a result of that, you start having to make deals with the devil. And then things really get out of hand.

Here’s a president whose main goal is stopping nuclear proliferation, to get a deal with the Russians, which was a bad deal that gave the Russians a decided edge in nuclear weapons – that was his big thing, START II. And what he’s done is start a nuclear arms race because the U.S. is not standing by its commitments.

It’s not only Barack Obama who has been advocating a more cautious foreign policy. It’s also Republicans.

Agreed. You’ve seen me out there taking on the Paul faction. I did during the campaign. I took on Ron Paul at debate after debate on Iran, on Pakistan. I see the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party for what it is: allied with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I think that’s a very serious threat to our own security.

How do you convince the young voters this faction is reaching out to that this is the wrong course?

What we have to do is have the people who believe in the conservative message go out and articulate a positive vision for the country based on those principles. You can deliver a positive message for the country on national security without saying we need to be in a war in every country. Which of course we can’t do, and we wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean we need to disengage. There’s a cost to disengagement.

There was a lot of soul-searching within the party after Romney lost. What’s the best thing the GOP has done since, and what has been the worst?

In both cases, Obamacare. The objective of focusing on Obamacare is the right thing; the tactics [that led to the shutdown] were not well thought-out. And the problem is it created a division within the Republican Party that doesn’t do us any good. It created a black hole right before their black hole, which was the implementation of Obamacare. Why would you create that moment right before it becomes apparent to the American public that you were right?

Do you think you would have beaten Obama?

Without a doubt.

Why?

Because I would have been able to attract the voters in the states that mattered. Romney would probably do better than me in New Jersey and California and New York. But I’d do better in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia—in the states that were going to decide the election. Look at how we did in Ohio in the primary. We got outspent by huge amounts. I didn’t run a single ad in the Cleveland market, and we still almost beat him in Ohio.

If you ran again in two years, how would you do things differently?

I’d raise a lot more money. We’d have to have a stronger team, and a stronger fundraising base. [In 2012,] I had to establish myself in the conservative world as sort of the authentic conservative across the board, including moral and cultural issues. A lot of people didn’t know that much about me and my positions on those issues. So I had to, on occasion, talk about it. And of course any time I did, there’s Santorum out there talking about social issues.

By the time it got down to me and Romney, I talked mostly about Obamacare on the campaign trail. But I was able to talk more about the blue-collar stuff, energy and manufacturing. Things like that really started to create some momentum for us. But by then, I was the social conservative candidate, the alternative to Romney. And what I said and the policies that I put forward, they just didn’t get any coverage. This time around I don’t have to go out and prove by bona fides on being a conservative. I can focus in on how I differentiate myself from the rest of the field and how I think we can develop a winning message for the fall.

What’s your sense of the 2016 field?

I’m the guy that sat there last time and watched seven people go to the top of the pack and fall.

There might be twelve this time.

You know what, they can get to the top of the pack and fall too. One of the things I know is that when I got to the top of the pack I didn’t fall. I ran out of money, and I ran out of time. And the forces were against me. It’s tough running against City Hall.

The amazing thing, here we are looking at 2016, and many of the national polls don’t even put my name on the list. They review the candidates, and I’m not included on the list of people who they look at, which I sort of get a kick out of. It’s sort of been my strength over the course of my political career that I’m always underestimated. Always. The Democrats did that for a long time and I won four straight races. And now it’s happening on the Republican side.

What lessons does Pope Francis offer to conservatives?

There have been a lot of people who have been led astray, doctrinally and otherwise, by the liberalism of the Church, the scandals within the Church. And what Francis is saying is look, what they just need to hear is the good news. They need to hear that God loves them, and that here’s the Gospel and the Gospel’s for you. And so he’s tried to focus his message on the average guy. And so I think that’s a good message for Republicans.

TIME 2016 Election

Cruz Supporters Launch 2016 Super PAC

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators state Capitol day event, on March 18, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators state Capitol day event, on March 18, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall—AP

Supporters say they'll raise money and collect signatures to help the Tea Party favorite run for president in 2016

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is getting a new super PAC dedicated to helping the Tea Party favorite win the presidency in 2016.

Draft Ted Cruz For President launched its website Wednesday, citing a goal of collecting one million signatures this year to “lay the groundwork for the kind of grassroots army of volunteers, donors, and early-primary voters that is needed to win in 2016.”

The super PAC, which can raise unlimited sums to bolster a possible presidential bid by the Lone Star State Republican, filed organizing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in January. Its treasurer, Paul Kilgore, is a former aide to Newt Gingrich who also served as treasurer for a super PAC supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential bid. The new group devoted to boosting Cruz has not yet filed any financial disclosures.

The effort was announced on the conservative website Redstate.com by Raz Shafer, a regional director for Cruz based in Texas. “I’ve never spoken to Ted about him running for president and I honestly don’t know if he will do it,” Shafer writes, “but I do know he won’t succeed unless freedom-loving Americans like you and me begin organizing this effort now.”

TIME Immigration

Prison Hunger Strike Puts Spotlight on Immigration Detention

Detention Center Hunger Strike
Demonstrators opposing deportations hold up signs while chanting in English and Spanish outside of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wa. on March 11, 2014. Thomas Soerenes—The News Tribune/AP

An inmate hunger strike at a Washington detention center is raising questions about immigration detention quotas and enforcement

Eleven days ago, Paulino Ruiz stopped eating.

After nine months at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., which houses immigration detainees awaiting deportation, Ruiz was sick of eating a boiled potato at every meal. He was offended by the harsh treatment meted out by guards. And he was tired of making just $1 per day for custodial work.

Perhaps most of all, he felt let down by the immigration policies of Barack Obama. Ruiz, 26, came to the U.S. at age three and says he is a legal resident of the U.S. But when he was released from prison last year after serving time for robbery, he was put on a path to deportation. “You can only get pushed so far,” Ruiz explains in a phone interview with TIME from inside the low-slung facility that sprawls across Tacoma’s tide flats. “More people have been deported since [Obama's] been in office than anyone else in history.”

Ruiz chose the right time to protest. A facility-wide hunger strike started at breakfast on March 7 at the detention center, spreading by word of mouth, until by dinnertime about 750 of the facility’s 1,300 detainees were declining to eat, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The strike turned a spotlight on immigration detention and deportation policies just as the White House is taking a fresh look at the issues.

On March 13, Obama announced he had ordered a review of his Administration’s immigration-enforcement policies. The next day, the President met for nearly two hours with 17 leading immigration-reform advocates at the White House. Obama told them he has asked Jeh Johnson, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to conduct the review.

Two of the enforcement policies Obama inherited are at the center of the Tacoma hunger strike. One is the so-called “bed mandate,” an arcane provision embedded in the annual DHS spending bill. The other is mandatory detention, which requires suspected immigration violators to be held indefinitely while a deportation review is pending, often without bond.

Introduced in 2007, the bed mandate sets a target for the number of undocumented immigrants DHS must house to receive its annual appropriation. The current quota is about 34,000 people. Immigration analysts say it forces law enforcement to pursue and detain undocumented immigrants simply to meet quotas, stripping them of discretion as they carry out their jobs. As a result, facilities like Northwest Detention Center are crammed with detainees who have committed minor infractions, such as traffic violations. Their detention costs taxpayers about $160 per day, which quickly adds up: in the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. shelled out more than $2 billion on immigration detention.

“It’s neither good policy nor good use of resources,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University’s School of Law.

In recent months, House Democrats have sought to strike the statute by stressing its ballooning costs — an appeal aimed at fiscal conservatives. They argue that alternatives to lengthy detention for nonviolent offenders, such as monitoring bracelets or supervised release—would be far cheaper and equally effective. “Neither party wants to see taxpayer money wasted,” says Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat who has twice co-sponsored amendments to end the mandate. “This is something we can do on a bipartisan basis.”

But bipartisanship has flopped so far. In June, an amendment sponsored by Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida was defeated in a largely party-line vote, with just eight Republicans joining the vast majority of Democrats in a failed effort to scrap the mandate. Deutch and Foster have tried to revive the issue without luck so far.

Republicans say administration officials are allowing budget cuts to serve as an excuse for lax immigration enforcement. The GOP believes Obama has a habit of picking and choosing which parts of federal law he wants to enforce, and defends the mandate as a statute that compels the government to lock up offenders or lose its funding. “This is not optional. It’s not discretionary,” Rep. John Culberson of Texas, a Republican, told Johnson at a hearing earlier this month. “There’s no prosecutorial discretion on the part of a police officer or your detention folks as to whether or not you’re going to fill 34,000 beds. You shall fill 34,000 beds.”

But immigration reformers believe the private-prison industry is unduly affecting the public debate. Private prison operators spend millions lobbying lawmakers on immigration detention and other issues that directly impact their bottom line.

Like most detention centers, the facility in Tacoma is operated by a private contractor, the Geo Group. That corporation’s political-action committee has given more than $100,000 to state, local and federal candidates so far in the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”It’s a wasteful taxpayer giveaway to special interests that hurts law enforcement and is inconsistent with the way we approach immigration in this country,” Deutch says.

The protesters in Tacoma were also reacting to the policy known as mandatory detention, which often locks up offenders indefinitely. The policy was expanded by a pair of laws passed in 1996 and strengthened by the Patriot Act after Sept. 11, 2001. It requires that categories of non-U.S. citizens be imprisoned without evaluating the threat they may pose, often without giving them a bond hearing. “You have people who might get arrested for something minor, but aren’t allowed to fight their case,” says Sandy Restrepo, a Washington State immigration lawyer involved with the hunger strike. “Either they have really high bonds set, or they’re ineligible for bond.”

Some of these detainees are legal residents of the U.S. Brought to the U.S. at age three from the Mexican state of Michoacan, Ruiz says he was raised in Oregon, where he graduated from high school. According to Ruiz, he spent years working construction and landscaping before he was arrested in 2008 for a drunken robbery. When he was released from prison last year, he says, he was remanded to the custody of ICE because of an immigration hold, and has been held without bond as he appeals his deportation. He says he has no ties to Mexico and his entire family lives in the U.S., including his ailing father. “I’m not a bad person,” Ruiz says. “I just made a mistake. I took responsibility for that. It hurts not to be able to be back with my family.”

It is unclear whether the review Obama ordered will result changes to either the bed quota or to the practice of mandatory detention. Earlier this month, in testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, DHS Secretary Johnson told lawmakers that he interpreted the 34,000-bed mandate “to mean that we have to maintain 34,000 detention beds. Some of those beds might be empty at any given time.” That parsing, which the GOP disputes, would allow the Administration to detain fewer undocumented immigrants on a day-to-day basis even if Congress declined to change the law.

But the review ordered by Obama is unlikely to result in sweeping changes to enforcement—not least because the President does not want to hand Congressional Republicans an excuse to back further away from their halfhearted interest at rewriting U.S. immigration law. “We don’t know what the review will mean,” Chishti says. “He’s not promising anything. My own view is it will be modest.”

After more than a week, the number of detainees in Tacoma who are still skipping meals has dwindled to just a few. Andrew Munoz, a spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security’s Seattle office, said that ICE respected the right of detainees to register their opinions about their treatment. “While we continue to work with Congress to enact commonsense immigration reform, ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on its priorities, including convicted criminals and those apprehended at the border while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States,” Munoz said.

Even if DHS decides to change course, it may be too late for immigrants like Ruiz. Suspended in limbo after a serious mistake, he finds himself caught in the gears of an immigration-enforcement machine that can’t often be stopped once it is engaged. “I’ve got my whole life invested in this country,” he says. “I feel like I deserve another opportunity.”

Correction appended, March 18: This story originally misspelled the surname of Florida Representative Ted Deutch.

TIME 2014 elections

Influential Conservative Group Endorses Alaska Republican

Dan Sullivan
Mark Thiessen—AP

The Club for Growth gives Dan Sullivan a leg up in his bid to unseat Sen. Mark Begich

A prominent conservative organization known for spending heavily in Republican primaries endorsed former Alaska attorney general Dan Sullivan on Wednesday, in a boost to the GOP candidate’s bid to snatch the Senate seat held by incumbent Democrat Mark Begich.

“Dan Sullivan is a fiscal conservative with a stellar track record in Alaska,” Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, said in a statement. “Dan has fought for pro-growth tax reform, taken on Obamacare in court, and beaten back federal overreach by Obama’s EPA.”

The coveted endorsement gives Sullivan a leg up in a crowded Republican primary which also includes the state’s lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, and the party’s 2010 Senate nominee, Joe Miller. The battle to beat Begich, a moderate Democrat representing a staunchly conservative state, is one of the GOP’s top targets as it vies to retake control of the Senate in November. The GOP primary is Aug. 26.

For Sullivan, the endorsement is a coveted one. It is just the fourth Senate primary into which the deep-pocketed Club for Growth has waded into this year, following the endorsements of GOP candidates Ben Sasse in Nebraska, Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Tom Cotton in Arkansas. The decision was the product of a meticulous vetting process that illustrates how the political power structure has shifted.

Changes to campaign-finance law have atomized the political process, diminishing the clout wielded by party committees and empowering outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums boosting their chosen candidates. One of the fronts in this battle is candidate selection, a process formerly controlled by the parties. Instead of courting county chairman or decision-makers at the party hubs, candidates form a column to visit the outside operators who can lavish money on the cause.

That means if you are a Republican candidate, you have probably trooped to the Club’s office suite in downtown Washington, either to seek the group’s imprimatur or forestall an onslaught against you. Back in January, the group had already conducted more than 100 candidate interviews for the 2014 cycle.

The Club does not simply endorse the most impressive candidates, Chocola told TIME in January. It looks for races where its money and muscle can make the difference, starting with safe, open Republican seats. Its secondary targets are incumbent Republicans who are seen as straying from pro-growth principles. That tactic has incensed many fellow Republicans, who argue it squanders capital that could be spent ousting Democrats. But the Club sees two benefits. “If you win, you get a better vote; and two, you get the attention of a whole bunch of other incumbents, and there’s a ripple effect,” Chocola says. “They start voting better when one of their colleagues gets beat.” The third category is attractive Republicans capable of knocking off vulnerable Democrats, such as in Alaska, where Begich has a target on his back.

An endorsement requires an interview, which generally involves three or four Club staffers peppering candidates about topics ranging from farm subsidies and free trade to student loans and flood insurance. Acing the policy murder board is requisite, but not sufficient. If a perfect candidate is going to coast to victory, the Club won’t endorse; likewise, if he or she has no shot and winning, it won’t get money either. “We look for a disparity in the quality of the candidate,” Chocola says. “The perfect setup is a really good guy versus a really bad guy in a safe district with a cheap media market.”

In recent cycles, the Club has given a boost to most of the Senate’s most conservative members, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. “We’re risk takers,” Chocola says. “We don’t expect to win every race.” But it is also more cautious with its endorsements than other conservative outside groups, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund or FreedomWorks. And it is behind its normal pace in backing candidates this cycle, with just six total endorsements—down from 26 in 2010 and 18 in 2012. The number may be a tacit admission that the current crop of challengers is weaker than in past cycles. Of the Tea Party-aligned candidates running against GOP senators this year, only McDaniel is thought is have a good chance of toppling the incumbent.

In many cases, the Club’s support of uncompromising conservatives pits it against the Republican establishment. Alaska may be an exception, as Sullivan is thought to be the preferred candidate of the party as well.

TIME 2016 Election

CPAC Gives Republicans a 2016 Preview

The Republican presidential field won't start taking shape for another eight months, but the 2016 race was the unspoken theme of the first day of an annual conservative conference on the banks of Washington's National Harbor

A deep roster of potential presidential contenders presented competing visions of the Republicans’ future while subtly jostling to position themselves as the right candidate to lead the party.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is a rite of passage for the right’s presidential aspirants, who must showcase their ability to enthrall activists, excite donors and enlist talent. At least five legitimate GOP contenders (sorry, Donald Trump and John Bolton: we’re not buying it) addressed activists in a ballroom at an airy resort here Thursday. In each case, the candidate’s approach to courting the crowd offered an early preview of how he interprets his niche in a crowded field of presidential hopefuls.

Senator Ted Cruz: The Tea Party Icon

Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

“Now, I do have to start with a bit of bad news this morning,” the Texas Senator began his speech, which opened the three-day conference. “I’m sorry to tell you that by virtue of your being here today, tomorrow morning each and every one of you is going to be audited by the IRS.”

It’s a joke Cruz has told time and again, but it brought down the house — and it illustrated how his keen ability to tap into the anxieties of the GOP base makes him a Tea Party darling.

Representative Paul Ryan: The Ideas Guy

Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012, may not run this time around. But his remarks were a reminder of why he has forged a reputation as one of his party’s brightest thinkers. He likened his successful pitch for entitlement reform to his former boss Jack Kemp’s belief in supply-side economics: an idea considered a political liability until it became party doctrine.

The message? Republicans should embrace the battle of ideas and hold fast to convictions that may not play well at the polls. “A majority party welcomes debate,” Ryan told the crowd. “It brings people in. It doesn’t burn heretics. It wins converts. And it knows people don’t want to be pandered to. They want to be treated like adults. They want to be convinced. They want to be inspired.”

Governor Bobby Jindal: The Bomb Thrower

Bobby Jindal CPAC
Brooks Kraft—Corbis

A week after breaking an unwritten rule by lambasting President Obama on the White House grounds, the Louisiana governor flung more red meat than perhaps any other presidential hopeful. Jindal, a Rhodes scholar who has urged the GOP to “stop being the stupid party,” has put his wonky side on the back burner and unleashed scathing attacks on his political opponents. On Thursday he opened his remarks with an apology to former President Jimmy Carter for previously calling him the worst President of his lifetime. Later he said Obama should sue Harvard for his law-school tuition because he didn’t learn anything about the Constitution.

Governor Chris Christie: The Pragmatic Conservative

Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

Thursday’s speech reinforced what is almost certain to be a central problem for a potential Christie candidacy: the base’s skepticism in his conservative bona fides.

Senator Marco Rubio: The American Exceptionalist

Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

The young Senator from Florida has distinguished himself by hewing to a muscular foreign policy that has lost favor in a party weary from the costs of war. Rubio, who has been mending ties with the base that frayed after his pitch for immigration reform, unspooled an optimistic speech that hammered Obama’s foreign policy and stressed the U.S.’s central place in the world.

“There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism,” Rubio said, drawing on his biography as the son of Cuban immigrants to lay out his belief in American exceptionalism. “Every time I talk about how special America is, some commentator or whoever it may be will roll their eyes and say, ‘Well, that’s just something Americans tell each other to make themselves feel good.’ You have the right to believe that. I don’t have that option, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Still to Come

Senator Rand Paul brought down the house in his speech last year and is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s straw poll. Former Senator Rick Santorum finished second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary and is flirting with another bid for the White House. Texas Governor Rick Perry is working to resurrect his national brand following a disastrous 2012 campaign. All three will speak to the group on Friday.

The No-Shows

Several Republican governors thought to be eyeing potential White House bids all skipped the conference, preferring instead to focus on their re-election campaigns. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder all received shout-outs from Christie for their conservative stands but did not travel to the conference. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is a favorite of Establishment Republican donors but has shown no real signs of throwing his hat in the ring.

TIME 2016 Election

A Humbled Christie Strikes Low-Key Tone at Conservative Confab

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Md.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014, in National Harbor, Md. Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivered an uncharacteristically low-key speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this afternoon, aiming to reconnect with the Republican base amid a traffic scandal that has dented his 2016 ambitions

Humbled by a scandal that has hampered his rise on the national stage, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sought to reconnect with the Republican base on Thursday, delivering an uncharacteristically low-key speech to GOP activists that sounded traditional conservative themes.

“You know I’m shy and retiring, and I don’t like to speak my mind,” Christie joked during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual confab held at a convention center on the banks of the Potomac River outside Washington.

But the reference to his swaggering image seemed to invoke a figure who wasn’t there. Christie’s remarks were neither brusque nor stirring. He courted the crowd by ticking off familiar tropes, reminding skeptical conservatives of his anti-abortion bona fides and his record of taking on public-sector unions and instituting budget reforms. The Garden State governor assailed the media for bias, cast Democrats as “the party of intolerance,” and urged the GOP to define itself as the party of ideas.

“Our ideas are better than their ideas,” Christie told the packed ballroom. “We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”

Christie framed himself as a conservative who has secured a governing majority in a reliably blue state. If the GOP can win in New Jersey, he said, it can borrow the blueprint to expand the political map in coming elections.

“Governors are about getting things done,” Christie said, lumping himself in with a passel of conservative executives leading blue and purple states, while distancing himself from Washington lawmakers. “Republican governors in this country have stood up and done things — not just talked about them.”

Christie’s remarks, which lasted about 15 minutes, were a far cry from the all-about-me message he delivered at the 2012 Republican National Convention. His speech Thursday earned a polite reception from the crowd and was punctuated by several rounds of applause. He spoke off the cuff, using notes instead of a teleprompter.

But his very attendance is a sign that the frost between Christie and his party’s base has thawed. Christie addressed the group in 2012 but did not receive an invitation to CPAC last year. The snub came just months after his public embrace of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Many Republicans believed Christie’s effusive praise of the President in the final days of Obama’s re-election campaign helped lift the President over GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Christie spent much of 2013 focused on appealing to his state’s Democrats in order to run up the score of his re-election in preparation for a 2016 presidential campaign.

The reception may have reflected the media onslaught buffeting Christie, who has been under fire in recent months amid revelations that aides initiated a traffic jam in an apparent act of political retribution. The harsh spotlight from a media conservatives see as biased has earned him new affection from the right.

Working a crowd that has not always been friendly to his brand of Northeast conservatism, Christie sought to mend fences. He defended the political activity of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose spending on 2014 races has become a rallying cry for vulnerable Senate Democrats. He urged conservatives to stress an economic platform that can lift Americans out of poverty. And he lambasted Obama for standing on the sidelines when Washington required leadership.

“Mr. President,” he said, “what the hell are we paying you for?”

TIME 2014 Election

7 Ways to Lose An Election

Steve Stockman, John Boehner
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, second from right, participates in a mock swearing-in ceremony with Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, for the 113th Congress in Washington, Jan. 3, 2013. Evan Vucc—AP

Steve Stockman's Senate challenge in Texas is the most baffling display of ineptitude since Alvin Greene

Tuesday marks the official beginning of the midterm elections, as Texas voters head to the polls to cast the first ballots of the 2014 primary campaigns. That milestone also marks the likely end of the country’s strangest campaign: Steve Stockman’s Senate bid.

When Stockman announced he would give up his House seat to challenge John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, no one was quite sure of his angle. A backbench firebrand, Stockman is known mostly for his outré Twitter account and trollish stunts like walking out of the State of the Union. Few expected him to match the fundraising firepower or organization rigor of Cornyn’s campaign. But Stockman has put on the most baffling display of political ineptitude since Alvin Greene.

The campaign has been so bizarre that Republican consultants in Texas are at a loss to explain it. Mark McKinnon, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, suggested recently in an email that it defied rational interpretation, while GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said the mysterious campaign was “never intended to be anything more than a debt-retirement project.”

Should you ever want to ditch a $174,000-per-year job to self-immolate on the national stage, here is the Stockman campaign blueprint, in seven easy steps:

1. Skip campaigning. Stockman’s website does not list public appearances, of which there haven’t been too many. Groups around the state have complained that he has been a no-show at political events. He had a campaign office condemned for safety violations. “Day to day, just getting hold of him, that’s not Steve, I guess,” said one Tea Party leader.

2. Alienate your base. On paper, an agitator with a 100% conservative voting record had a natural well of support to tap in deep-red Texas. But the Tea Party network that propelled the underdog insurgency of Ted Cruz grew frustrated with Stockman’s antics. “It’s horrible,” a Tea Party leader told Politico, arguing that Stockman’s dishonesty “disqualifies” him from consideration.

3. Go missing. At one point in January, Stockman missed 17 consecutive votes in the House. The media, which had noted his infrequent appearances on the campaign trail, was unable to get a straight answer from staff about his whereabouts. Stockman himself fed the speculation that he’d gone MIA:

In the end, Stockman’s office said he was on a congressional trip abroad, and didn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

4. Fib about the press. Stockman is far from the first politician to court conservatives by making the media a foil. But it is generally a bad idea to claim reporters have lied when there is clear evidence to the contrary.

5. Threaten critics with criminal charges. Stockman filed a libel suit against the Texans for a Conservative Majority, a political-action committee that backs Cornyn, in part for citing a felony charge Stockman appears to have previously admitted. He also issued a veiled threat against media outlets who published the old mugshot.

6. Go dark on fundraising. The congressman, who solicited donations by floating the prospect of impeaching “Barrack [sic] Hussein Obama,” has not filed late-campaign contribution reports to the FEC:

It’s not the first time that Stockman was accused of violating campaign-finance regulations.

7. Claim phony endorsements. As the campaign neared the finish line, Stockman tried to inject some enthusiasm by claiming that the head of a large Tea Party organization endorsed him, according to Breitbart News. The problem? Didn’t happen. A fitting end to a train wreck of a campaign.

TIME 2014 Election

U.S. Chamber Fires Shot In GOP 2014 Primary War

Thomas Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaks at the Chamber of Commerce Jobs for America summit in Washington, D.C., July 11, 2011. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

An ad from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offer a glimpse of how the Republican primary battles will be fought

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is expected to spend some $50 million to defend pro-business incumbent in competitive primaries this year, launched a new television ad Friday that offers a preview of how the Republican civil war may play out over the airwaves this spring.

The ad zeroes in one of this cycle’s marquee primary races, which is taking place in Idaho’s Second District, of all places. Interest groups hailing from the GOP’s Establishment wing are going head-to-head against the passel of conservative outside groups. The primary pits incumbent Republican Mike Simpson, a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner, against Bryan Smith, who is backed by organizations like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.

The Chamber ad, which harps on Smith’s work as a trial lawyer, is a preview of how Simpson’s allies will try to parry the challenge. Watch it below.

Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokesperson for the Chamber, said the organization’s policy was not to disclose the size of specific ad buys.

Conservative groups vying to oust Simpson, meanwhile, say the eight-term representative is insufficiently conservative. Simpson scored a 47% in the Club for Growth’s 2013 scorecard.

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