WASHINGTON — Both rising stars and faces from the past borrowed from the movement of the moment Friday at an annual meeting of conservatives, where the language and energy of the "tea party" movement took center stage.
"Patriots in this room and patriots across this country are rising up. And we have a message for liberals: We're planting the flag on common ground, and if you try to take our freedoms, we will fight back!" Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the activists gathered for the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Pawlenty, who is considering a run for the presidency, was one of several speakers who touted liberty, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and a strict adherence to the Constitution — the rhetorical calling card of the small-government tea party movement. Its followers are the most active corner on the right, and conservative politicians were focused on speaking to them.
Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul, whose libertarian-based presidential campaign predated the tea parties of last spring, drew a rowdy, young crowd.
"Sounds to me like the revolution is alive and well!" he declared, adding later, "Government is the enemy of liberty!"
Another tea party favorite, Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, accused President Barack Obama of intentionally undermining the "greatness" of the United States. "That's what this is, intending to fail," Bachmann said, pointing to a chart showing rising deficit projections.
Later, former Attorney General John Ashcroft dubbed the Constitution the "transcendent core value of American exceptionalism." But Ashcroft, who authorized domestic surveillance measures during the George W. Bush administration, had detractors in the crowd. One heckler called out "fascist" at the mention of Ashcroft's name.
"There's nothing honorable about taking away people's rights! Tell the truth!" a woman later yelled.
"I think my time is up. I think her time is passed," Ashcroft retorted.
Such open confrontations were rare in a meeting of conservatives who are feeling upbeat about their political prospects. Though the amiable Pawlenty tried to strike a more strident tone, his remarks will probably be remembered for a joke. Noting that Tiger Woods was scheduled to make his long-awaited apology Friday, Pawlenty said conservatives had something to learn from the story of the fallen golf star.