ORLANDO, FL -– The nine Republican candidates who took part in last night’s presidential debate returned today to the same room where they sparred less than 24 hours earlier for the Conservative Political Action Conference’s first road trip.
CPAC -– the annual Washington, DC gathering for conservatives from around the country –- took to the Orange County Convention Center here, marking the third time in two days the candidates have addressed the same audience. While most stuck to railing against big government and touting their conservative credentials, the two front-runners used it as a chance to repeat the jabs they took at each other the night before.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney drew applause by denouncing his chief rivals decision to grant in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants in Texas.
"My friend Gov. Perry said that if you don't agree with his position on giving that in state tuition to illegals, that you don't have a heart. I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart; it means that you have a heart and a brain," he said.
Perry did not address the issue when he took the stage a few hours later. Instead, he focused on defying critics who have speculated that his political skills on the national stage don't live up to the hype his frontrunner status has garnered.
"As conservatives, we know that values and vision matter," Perry said. "It's not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect. We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for this country."
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also used CPAC as a chance to separate herself from the pack –- though she mentioned no other candidates by name. Instead, she urged voters not to “settle” on a moderate candidate, renewing a message that has defined her three appearances at Florida GOP events this week.
“Every four years, when we look at the presidential race, we are repeatedly told as conservatives that we have to go stand next to the wall,” Bachmann said, adding: “We’re told we have to give the nomination to a moderate or to a safe candidate.”
It’s a message Bachmann first introduced Thursday, at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, and then reiterated last night during the FOX-Google debate. Bachmann told the crowd this morning that she rejects the “safe” approach, and asked voters to “find the candidate that most reflects your values.”
The pitch may have a barb or two meant for the race’s front-runners. During the FOX debate, the Bachmann campaign issued two press releases attacking Perry’s position on immigration.
“As president of the United States, I will build a fence along the southern border,” she said, drawing a distinction with Perry’s statement last night that a border fence “does not make sense.”
The importance of Florida was a common theme from all candidates today. CPAC Chair Al Cardenas said the conference chose to travel to Florida because of the prominence the state will play in 2012.
CPAC will be traveling again in the near future, with the next destination likely to be the president’s hometown of Chicago, IL.
Video edited by NBC's Natalie Cucchiara and Morgan Parmet.