Organizers hope next month’s Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in Philadelphia becomes a stop on the presidential cattle-call circuit.
“If you want to be president of the United States, we want you here,” said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania GOP.
Several hundred conservative activists are expected to descend on the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel June 18-20 for sessions on campaign tactics, pep talks from national party leaders — and to size up as many of the 19 declared or prospective Republican 2016 presidential candidates who can make it.
Everybody’s invited. So far, New Jersey Gov. Christie, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton have confirmed. Gleason believes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will accept.
“These conferences are popping up all over,” said G. Terry Madonna, political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “For the candidates, it’s a good opportunity to get some exposure and access to political insiders, to build a base of support.”
Indeed, it has been the season of the conference in the GOP, as conservative activists and interest groups stage multi-candidate extravaganzas, albeit mostly in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
The Southern Republican Leadership Conference will draw a raft of candidates to Oklahoma City this month.
Though the power center of the GOP has tilted toward the Sun Belt for better than a generation, the party has had some recent successes in Northeastern states. Massachusetts and Maryland, among the most Democratic-dominated states, elected Republican governors last year.
“Ten years ago, you would have laughed if I’d predicted we’d do that,” Gleason said. “We’re getting a lot more respect now.”
Then there’s Christie in deep-blue New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, voters booted Republican Gov. Tom Corbett last year, but the party increased its hold on the legislature. It controls more than 40 county governments, and 13 of the state’s 18 U.S. House members are Republican.
For all the success, Gleason and others badly want to restore Pennsylvania’s status as a swing state in presidential politics. The last Republican to win the state was President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
“There’s always a lot of discussion and debate about whether we’ll be in play; the base is solid, but we never seem able to push it over the top,” Gleason said.
One reason to think about contesting the state, analysts say: The GOP has a narrow path to victory in the Electoral College, and winning Pennsylvania would cushion against losing, say, Ohio, ground zero of the last three elections.
Most important, conferences such as these encourage the rank-and-file activists who attend, Gleason said, allowing “the person who labors year in and year out at the polls” the chance to rub elbows with potential presidents.
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