OXON HILL, Md. — She was not on the speaking program, but Hillary Rodham 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.
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, who have supported Democrats in every presidential election since 1988.
“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 the GOP’s 2008 ticket and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
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.
Women were a focus on Saturday, claiming three prime speaking spots on the closing day of a three-day event that included dozens of speakers. Women played a more prominent role in breakout sessions and panel discussions over the course of the conference.
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.
American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas defended the number of women offered high-profile roles at the conference.
“It’s a very representative group,” he said. “Of the 200 speakers that we have, a good percentage of them are either minorities or women.”
Carly Fiorina, one of five women featured alone on the main stage, said she was sick and tired of Democrats who charge that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”
“We respect all women. And we do not insult them by thinking that all they care about is reproductive rights,” the former U.S. Senate candidate from California said. “All issues are women’s issues. We are half of this great nation.”
But 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.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the early favorite to win the conference’s symbolic straw poll, represents a new generation of libertarian-minded Republicans less likely to oppose gay marriage or embrace laws allowing the government to affect people’s private lives.
“There’s a great battle going on. It’s for the heart and soul of America,” Paul told a swelling crowd Friday, focusing on civil liberties instead of social issues.
The straw poll results are expected Saturday evening.