“CPAC has become increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years – one of the reasons I didn’t go this year,” said the former Southern Baptist minister, who enjoys a devoted following among Christian conservative voters and who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.
The rise of the “tea party” movement has taken some of the air out of CPAC, Mr. Huckabee said.
While CPAC historically has been a central event on the political calendar for conservatives, “the tea parties now are having their own events all over the country and a lot more truly grass-roots people are getting involved because of the tea parties,” Mr. Huckabee said.
He delivered his unexpected attack in an interview over the weekend with Geraldo Rivera on Fox News, where Mr. Huckabee has his own talk show. The cable network had given extensive coverage to the conference that Mr. Huckabee bashed.
David A. Keene, the chief conference organizer, responded, saying, “We are perplexed by Governor Huckabee’s comments about CPAC, given our long and cordial relationship with him and his family.”
A potential 2012 Republican presidential nomination candidate, Mr. Huckabee has spoken at past CPAC gatherings in Washington. He did not attend this year’s gathering, the largest CPAC ever.
In a straw poll of 2,395 CPAC activists Saturday, Mr. Huckabee received just 4 percent of the vote among 2012 presidential hopefuls, far behind first-place finisher Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican and a favorite of libertarian voters.
Mr. Huckabee originally had cited a schedule conflict in turning down an invitation to address the conservative gathering.
But his remarks over the weekend on Fox News highlight the continuing tensions between social conservatives who focus on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and more libertarian conservatives whose priority issues tend to be taxes, the economy and government spending.
Nonetheless, prominent Christian conservatives have regularly participated in CPACs. Attendees at this year’s three-day conference included such noted social conservatives as Gary Bauer and Tim Goeglein.
Some fellow religious conservatives also expressed puzzlement over Mr. Huckabee’s words.
“It’s a free country and a free conservative movement,” Mr. Bauer, a Christian conservative leader and former White House domestic policy adviser, told The Washington Times. “The people at CPAC represent the three legs of the conservative coalition – traditional values, economic- libertarian and strong national defense.”
Mr. Bauer said the conservative coalition will stay together as long as each group in the conservatives coalition sees progress for its own agenda.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins took Mr. Huckabee’s side. “A movement seeking limited government will never succeed if it continually limits the importance of self-government and moral values,” he told The Times.
In his Fox interview, Mr. Huckabee said CPAC is no longer the sole conservative gathering place, given the rise of the tea party movement.
Mr. Huckabee Monday appeared to soften his stance, saying his critical comments had been overplayed by the press.
“I spoke more about the rise of the tea party movement and it becoming a force – and a positive one – and that Ron Paul winning the straw poll was an indicator that CPAC was taking a more libertarian flavor,” he said.
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