Potential GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum brought a bit of populism to a meeting of conservatives Friday, advocating for a Republican Party that shows it cares about people struggling economically.
The party needs to update its message, he said, to reach people whose wages have remained flat, who are unemployed or underemployed.
“People are struggling a lot,” said Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and a 2012 presidential candidate. He spoke Friday at the Conservative Leadership Conference hosted by the Civitas Institute of Raleigh.
“The Republican Party has not been particularly strong on focusing our time, efforts and polices on communicating a very important thing to all of those Americans that are struggling,” Santorum said. “You know what we haven’t been very effective in communicating? That we care.”
The convention brought three potential 2016 GOP primary candidates to speak to politically active conservatives.
Santorum is traveling the country “testing messages” ahead of a late spring or early summer decision whether to run. Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, launched an exploratory committee earlier this month. Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, is speaking Saturday. She said in a radio interview this month that it’s “looking more likely” that she’ll be a candidate.
The concentration of potential presidential candidates is a change for the conference, said Civitas spokesman Jim Tynen. “We’re hoping this will be a little bit of a preview of the 2016 landscape,” Tynen said.
The conference drew attendees who have been researching and following potential presidential candidates long before most voters have tuned in to the 2016 race.
Leon Wilson, a retired telecommunications engineer from Orange County, counted Santorum, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as his top three picks in the potentially crowded primary field.
Wilson, 59, said issues such as the Second Amendment, traditional marriage and support for Israel are important to him.
Plainspoken candidates will go far with Wilson.
“They’re going to speak their minds without trying to be politically correct,” Wilson said.
Carson made it plain that he does not believe in political correctness, either.
“I hate PC,” Carson said in his keynote address. “I think it’s antithetical to the founding principles of our nation.”
Carson used stories about growing up poor, the son of a single mother, to emphasize his political points.
Decades after the United States declared a war on poverty, he said, the poverty has increased.
“I don’t want to get rid of safety nets for people,” Carson said. “What I want to do is get rid of dependency in our society.”
In a 45-minute speech, Carson touched on issues dear to conservative voters: reducing the national debt, ending Obamacare and shrinking government.
“It’s important for us as a nation to know who we are, to understand our identity,” Carson said. “We have a very strong heritage. We should know clearly who we are. And the President says we are not a Judeo-Christian nation. But he doesn’t get to decide who we are. We get to decide who we are.”
Sarah Moore, a retiree from Durham, said she doesn’t have a favorite candidate yet. She’s looking for someone who is pro-life and who will emphasize fiscal responsibility and balancing the budget.
“I feel like we shouldn’t spend more money than we have,” Moore said.