BAKERSFIELD -- Three potential 2012 Republican presidential contenders tested their messages Saturday in the San Joaquin Valley, mixing patriotism with attacks on President Barack Obama and the political left for an appreciative crowd at the Bakersfield Business Conference.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin all spoke at the event, which was held for the first time in five years.
None mentioned the others, focusing instead on attacking Democrats and hitting broad-based themes on how the U.S. has fallen down -- but can be great again.
Obama and the majority Democrats in Congress were criticized as being anti-growth and anti-investment.
They were vilified for building a "nanny state" that discourages innovation and encourages people to look to government to pick them up.
Obama, in particular, was criticized for apologizing to the world for the nation's actions under former President George W. Bush.
They also blamed Obama for creating the worst economy in a generation.
"Who ever thought that we'd look back at the Jimmy Carter years as the good ol' days," Romney told the crowd, which was packed into a massive tent on the campus of California State University, Bakersfield.
Gingrich hit not only on Democrats in Washington, but the Democratic-dominated California Legislature, the city of Los Angeles, tenured faculty at the University of California at Berkeley and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In short: all are bad. The 9th Circuit, which Republicans often accuse of having a severe liberal bias, should be eliminated, he said.
Palin a big draw
Palin, however, ruled the day.
Speaking at the end of the program -- in what amounted to the headliner position -- she drew the biggest crowd, the biggest ovation, and had the most people crowding toward the stage to take her picture.
Bakersfield attorney George Martin -- the host and driving force behind the business conference -- introduced Palin by saying: "You're looking at the next president of the United States." In response, she offered up the most partisan speech of the day.
Palin -- a polarizing figure among the general public, polls show, but very popular among conservative Republicans -- cast a bleak picture of the nation under Obama, saying home foreclosures are up and the federal stimulus plan "did nothing but stimulate more national debt."
She called the Democratic-backed health-care reform bill that passed earlier this year a "job killer" and the "mother of all unfunded mandates" that will result in "rationing health care."
Palin even turned her attention to the San Joaquin Valley, weighing in on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water issue. A "two-inch fish," she said, has become more important than farmers.
She called federally mandated water cutbacks to protect endangered salmon and threatened delta smelt a "government-imposed drought" and said: "Your government did this to you." A "faceless bureaucrat" made the decision, she said.
Palin did not address the federal Endangered Species Act, which is the law that governs the delta fish species in question.
She summed up by calling moderate Republicans "the cocktail-party wing" of the GOP and cast the current Tea Party movement as "common man" versus "ruling class." Applause rang out inside the massive tent.
Other speakers included:
- Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
- Karl Rove, the longtime confidant of Bush and his former White House adviser.
- Former first lady Laura Bush.
Dems also on the bill
Organizers said it wasn't a Republican event. They pointed to Donna Brazile, a Democratic consultant and political pundit who managed former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, and political consultant Bob Beckel, who ran Walter Mondale's unsuccessful 1984 presidential bid against Ronald Reagan.
The event also featured comedians such as Rich Little and actresses such as Jane Seymour and Goldie Hawn.
One of the special unannounced guests at day's end was former airline captain Chesley Sullenberger, who gained fame for successfully landing an airliner in New York's Hudson River. His program-ending speech was measured, reverent and nonpolitical.
But the partisan leanings of most in the 10,000-plus crowd were obvious from the reaction to the parade of Republicans who spoke in the main tent -- sustained applause, flag waving and hoots of approval.
Romney and Palin did not address reporters after their speeches. Gingrich did.
Asked whether he was going to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, he said: "I don't know yet," adding he would decide by next March.
He also made comments that put him at odds with Meg Whitman, California's Republican gubernatorial nominee, on immigration.
If a person is brought to the U.S. illegally as a young child, and graduates from high school and becomes a contributing member of society, that person should be offered a chance at citizenship, he said.
In a Fresno debate last weekend, Whitman said she did not support such a move.