NATIONAL HARBOR, M.D.—Two very different GOP presidential hopefuls sat for two very different question and answer sessions in the 1 p.m. hour at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just outside Washington, D.C., this afternoon.
Up first was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was given a friendly but pointed grilling by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. Ingraham started out by positioning Christie as a CPAC outsider, noting that he is not a regular on the conservative talk show circuit. At CPAC, this is the equivalent of raising an eyebrow and saying, "So, what are you doing here?" Ingraham's questions continued in this vein, which was understandable. The average CPAC attendee is skeptical of Christie, who has not always gone out of his way to cozy up to the conservative base. Ingraham's questions reflected this sense of wariness.
Christie, for his part, was perfectly game, defending his record as governor against questions about his handling of the state's budget, and arguing that, in order to beat Hillary, Republicans need to prioritize defending the middle class. ""I don't mind rich people," he said, "but we need to be standing up for the people who haven't had a wage increase, adjusted for inflation, in fifteen years." He attacked minimum wage hikes as a non-solution, declaring that no parent believed a minimum wage hike would really solve all the economic problems for their kids.
After a brief, boring interlude in which Carly Fiorina gave a bland and generally unmemorable speech (she talked about her background and took a few swipes at Hillary Clinton), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took the stage. Cruz started his performance—and that's what it was—with a refrain-heavy speech that sounded more like a sermon. It was a sermon about crisis: "America is in jeopardy," he warned. And it was also an opportunity to butter up the audience. The "men and women who are gathered here are gathered to fight for our country" he declared. And those people—CPAC attendees—were set to "play a critical role in reigniting the miracle that is America."
Unlike Christie, the CPAC crowd loves Cruz. His speech was his way of saying he loves them back.
Cruz's speech led into another Q&A session. But this one wasn't hardball. It was little league. Fox News host Sean Hannity came out and teed up a series of easy hits for the Texas Senator, finishing with a question that was barely a question: "Why does Ted Cruz love America?" This is the political interview equivalent of handing a marksman a shotgun and saying, "Here, shoot this barn. Sure, get as close as you want."
The differing treatments mostly suggested the different ways that the CPAC crowd, which is made up of the most conservative part of the conservative base, feel about the two politicians. Christie is an outsider, to be questioned skeptically; Cruz is one of their own, to be treated with respect and adoration.
In another way, however, the two sessions were remarkably similar, in that we learned very little from either. Christie handled himself well, but mostly stressed his New Jersey bona fides and his aggressiveness—what he referred to as his "passion."
"I'm going to speak my mind, and I'm going to be direct," he said when questioned about his sometimes combative style. "Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up."
Cruz, meanwhile, talked up his antipathy toward Washington. "Take the power out of Washington and bring it back to the American people," he said. It was a theme he came back to several times. "The biggest divide in this country is between career politicians in Washington and the American people," he said later. Asked to describe Hillary Clinton in a word or three, he said, "Washington."
In other words, both Christie and Cruz offered slogans, platitudes, and simplified autobiographical character sketches, but little else. They talked about who they were more than what they had done. That's fair enough at this early stage. Neither are officially running yet, although it's clear that both are seriously considering a campaign. But eventually both will need to find ways to talk more substantively about their records and their policy ideas. "Talk is cheap," warned Cruz. Indeed.
(All quotes are rough but close transcripts from notes.)