By Steve Peoples
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.
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.
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 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.
Palin suggested Republicans should ignore the advice of the Republican National Committee and the party establishment to be more “inclusive and welcoming” to women on social issues.
“We’re the party with the plank that protects even our littlest sisters in the womb,” she said. “We are the real women liberators.”