By Josh Lederman - 02/11/12 11:15 PM EST
If Sarah Palin had been on the ballot for the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, there is little doubt she would have won.
The former Alaska governor received far-and-away the most spirited and enthusiastic reception at this convention of about 10,000 conservative activists.
She drew the audience to its feet more than a dozen times during her keynote address on Saturday.
“The president says small-town Americans, we bitterly cling to our religion and our guns because we’re just doggone frustrated with his pace of change,” Palin said. “We say, ‘Keep your change. We’ll keep our God, our guns, our Constitution.' ”
Almost all of Palin’s address, which closed the three-day conference, derided President Obama with escalating intensity, throwing his campaign slogans back at him with irony and vitriol.
“Hope and change? Yea, you gotta hope things change,” she said.
Her audience ate it up.
Palin painted a portrait of a president who shames the military, increases dependence on the government and embraces corruption. She said only when he is ousted from the White House will the United States have a commander in chief worthy of U.S. troops.
“This is Obama’s Washington. It is not the Washington of our founders, but the Washington of the permanent political class,” she said. “It is something that our forefathers never envisioned as they would have sworn their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to change.”
Palin lingered in the ballroom for almost half an hour after completing her speech, greeting the supporters who lavished praise on her and chanted her first name.
The former vice-presidential candidate appeared to relish her role as conservative attack dog, blasting Obama and Democrats without the encumbrance of having to detail policy positions or moderate her stances to appeal to the independents and crossover voters who will decide the general election in November.
“He says he has a jobs plan out, a jobs plan to 'Win the Future.' W.T.F. — I know,” she said.
Even the disruption of a gaggle of Occupy Wall Street protesters who heckled Palin became another symbol of her overwhelming support among this crowd of red-meat conservatives. The bulk of the crowd immediately coalesced to drown out the protesters with chants of “U.S.A.”
“I say to the Occupy protesters, you’re occupying the wrong place; you’re protesting the wrong thing,” Palin said later.
Palin’s support has been actively courted by the presidential candidates since she announced in October she would not jump into the GOP primary. While her husband, Todd Palin, has endorsed Newt Gingrich and Palin has spoken favorably about the former House Speaker, she has been careful not to offer a full endorsement, thus maintaining her illusive intrigue.
“We don’t know who our nominee will be to come up against Barack Obama and his failed policies in the fall,” she said. “We know this election will be hard-fought. Our nominee must be ready, strong, fortified, passionate, a fighter for American ideals.”
Palin did appear to take a veiled swipe at Mitt Romney, who won the straw poll of CPAC activists despite perennial uncertainty among conservatives about whether he is a true believer.
“Our candidate must be someone who can instinctively turn right to constitutional, conservative principles,” she said. “It's too late in the game to teach it or to spin it at this point. It’s either there or it isn’t.”
Although lauding the benefits of a prolonged, competitive primary fight, Palin implored Republicans not to attack each other so vigorously that they would do Democrats’ work for them by undercutting their viability in the general election.
“We know that the far left and their media allies can’t beat us on the issues, so instead, they distort our records,” she said. “They’ll even attack our families. Let’s not do the job for them. OK, Republicans? OK, independents?”
And Palin, embracing the unconventional, defiant quality that helped her become a Tea Party luminary, warned Republicans not to take the movement for granted when more Tea Party candidates are elected in November.
“This time, establishment, we expect them to get leadership posts in Congress,” she said.