Potential 2016 candidates bring mix of policy, morality to CPAC

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gestures as he speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Friday, March 15, 2013.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Updated at 3:35 p.m. ET

If this year's Conservative Political Action Conference gives any indication of what the 2016 presidential election may look like, voters can expect a robust debate between Republican candidates running values-based campaigns and those with hard-nosed, policy-driven agendas.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who lost the 2012 GOP primary to Mitt Romney, delivered an emotional, morality-laden speech at the conservative conference today, chiding those in the GOP who would compromise their principles for political gain.

"It does not benefit a movement to gain the country but lose its own soul," he said. "The left has made that Faustian bargain."

Santorum, known for his social conservatism, gave particularly personal remarks, explaining that he and his family were at his nephew's bedside last night as the young man died from a painful disease. He did not specifically say from what disease his nephew suffered. Experiencing the death of a young nephew was a "surreal experience" that prompted him to reflect on pain and suffering in America, Santorum said.

"The left can always promise more stuff and make it sound like they care more," Santorum said at the conference, hosted this year at the Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center on Maryland's National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. Yet all the "stuff" that government can deliver doesn't give the nation its strength, he argued. Even though the poor may be materially better off now than the poor 100 years ago, he said, "the suffering is greater today because our culture and our political leadership have robbed them of the 'why' in America. They have transformed the American dream that gave us purpose and hope and made suffering much less bearable."

Just hours earlier, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, delivered a markedly different speech that focused on the nuts and bolts of governing -- namely, the federal budget.

"Our debt is a threat to this country," Ryan said, explaining his proposal to balance the budget in 10 years. "We are on the verge of a debt crisis. Our obligations are growing faster than our ability to pay for them."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, took the stage in the afternoon and urged the GOP to broaden its agenda beyond austerity measures. He also said the focus of the party shouldn't be in Washington but in the states, chiding Democrats for making Washington the center of all policy discussions. "Tax reform is not about taking more money from hardworking people of America and sending it to Washington, D.C.," he said.

A day earlier, two more headliners gave similarly contrasting speeches at CPAC. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., avoided policy-based topics like immigration reform, even though he is leading GOP engagement on the issue, while stressing social issues like same-sex marriage. "Just because I believe that states should be able to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot," he said. On abortion, he remarked, "Science has proven that life begins at conception."

Rubio touched on policy issues like energy and education, while urging Republicans to "create an agenda applying our principles...to the challenges of today."

Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stressed his libertarian positions and its appeal to younger voters, saying, "Ask the Facebook generation whether we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug abuse and you will hear a resounding 'no.'"