OXON HILL, Md. — She was not on the speaking program, but Hillary Clinton had presence at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists on Saturday, as high-profile Republicans launched a dual effort to attack the prospective Democratic presidential candidate and improve the GOP’s longstanding struggle with women voters.
It was the closing act of a Republican summit that highlighted acute challenges for a party that hasn’t won a presidential election in a decade.
The GOP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, offered a message to all women, a group that has backed Democrats in every presidential election since 1988: “Women, don’t let them use you — unless you choose to be their political pawn, just their piece of accessory on their arm.”
The Republican firebrand was among just a handful of women featured on the main stage during the Conservative Political Action Conference, which offers an early audition for GOP officials weighing a 2016 presidential run and a platform for leading conservatives to put their stamp on the evolving Republican Party. Thousands of conservative activists, opinion leaders and Republican officials flocked to a hotel just across the Potomac River near Washington.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul won the conference’s presidential preference straw poll, a symbolic victory that reflects his popularity among conservatives who typically hold outsized influence in the GOP’s presidential selection process.
Paul captured 31 percent of the vote. He won the poll last year as well.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz finished second place with 11 percent, followed by neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Clinton has yet to announce her 2016 intentions, but she is considered the overwhelming favorite to win her party’s nomination should she run.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich charged that Clinton would be “a prison guard for the past” should she become president. Gingrich, a 2012 presidential hopeful, said that Republicans would recapture the White House if the next election is framed as a fight between the past and the future and predicted that the GOP would then “govern for two generations.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., declared that the former secretary of state “has a lot to explain” should she run for president, raising pointed questions about Clinton’s work in Russia and Libya. And she challenged the Republican Party’s struggle with women.
“Don’t forget, we are the party, the only party, that had a woman on the presidential ticket this century,” Bachmann, a 2012 presidential candidate, said of Palin.
Men dominated the speaking program for the first two days of the three-day event until the final day.
The imbalance caught the attention of Washington-based conservative blogger, Crystal Wright, a guest panelist on a discussion on how to attract more women.
“Part of it is basic optics. How did we start this conference? With one gender representing the movement of the conservative party,” she said, suggesting that women participants shouldn’t be “stacked up on one day.”
After a disappointing 2012 election season, Republican officials acknowledged the need to broaden the GOP’s appeal among the growing bloc of minority voters and women.
“Women are not a ‘coalition.’ They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections,” read an exhaustive self-examination released by the Republican National Committee less than a year ago. Ronald Reagan was the last Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of women voters.
The RNC report found that in order to attract more women, Republicans should become more “inclusive and welcoming” on social issues in particular. “If we are not,” the Republican authors found, “we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
Despite the aggressive anti-Clinton rhetoric, speakers also warned that the GOP must coalesce behind a positive agenda to help broaden the party’s appeal in the coming elections. Republicans are optimistic about their chances in the November congressional elections and eager to snap a two-election losing streak in presidential contests.
“We must stop being the opposition movement,” Gingrich said, suggesting that too much focus on Clinton would “virtually guarantee her election.”
But there was little agreement on what that agenda should be.
Some of the GOP’s most prominent conservatives insisted earlier in the conference that Republicans emphasize hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage in this year’s midterm elections, despite the warnings of other Republican leaders.
Palin suggested Republicans should ignore the advice of the RNC and the party establishment.
“We’re the party with the plank that protects even our littlest sisters in the womb,” she said. “We are the real women liberators.”