Presidential aspirants rally conservatives

WASHINGTON — Asserting that "this is our moment," Indiana Rep. Mike Pence issued a call to arms at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, urging grassroots activists to turn Democrats out of power in November and deliver the country from "the bondage of big government."

Pence repeatedly brought audience members to their feet with his articulation of conservative principles. Noting his party's failures to adhere to those values when they last held power in Washington, he said to cheers and applause, "We don't just need a Republican majority, we need a conservative majority on Capitol Hill."

His speech came on the heels of one by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — like Pence, a Republican mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2012. Pawlenty urged the conference to deliver a strong message to President Obama that "we will fight back."

"We're planting the flag on constitutional ground, and if you try to take our freedoms, we will fight back," Pawlenty said in a 25-minute address at the annual meeting in a Washington hotel.

CPAC provides a stage for Republicans aspiring to the presidency to prove their conservative credentials. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addressed the crowd Thursday afternoon.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were on tap for today.

Pence, who has acknowledged thinking about running for president in 2012, proved to be one of the best-received speakers during the first two days at this year's CPAC event, which ends today.

His speech touched familiar chords of conservatism: limited government, traditional values and a muscular assertion of American power abroad. But he also exhorted the conservative crowd not to let the opportunity they believe is at hand to slip away.

"Now's the time," he said. "It's time for all of us to do all we can to preserve what makes this country great. If you can give, give. If you can speak, speak. If you can write, write. And if you can run, run."

Earlier in the day, Pawlenty embraced a grassroots conservative movement that he said was "igniting this nation," and he drew a parallel with Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general during the Civil War who went on to become president.

"The implication is, we're kind of bumpkins," Pawlenty said. "Well, history is on our side. The Constitution is on our side. We're on the side of freedom. We're on the side of individual responsibility. We're on the side of free markets. We're on the side of rule of law. We're on the side of limited government. And like Grant, we fight."