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Mehlman's Fiery Start to GOP Gathering

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Republican political world has descended on the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis for the start of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference -- the first time the majority of GOP candidates eyeing the 2008 presidential race will speak under the same roof.

In the Peabody's lobby many of the 1,800 conference delegates mingle with politicians and members of the media. Everyone is waiting expectantly for the start of the speaking program this afternoon with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman the highlights of the schedule.

The Fix obtained a copy of Mehlman's speech a little early. Here's a look at the highlights:

* Mehlman takes a hard line against Democrats on controversial issues like the war in Iraq ("Do these Democrat leaders really think we would be safer by cutting and running in Iraq?"), the Patriot Act ("Was Harry Reid really that proud when he announced last year, 'We killed the Patriot Act'?") and the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program ("Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on foreign terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells here in the United States?"). "Democrats are great at this game," adds Mehlman. "They say one thing come election time, but their records show that they mean - and will do - another."

* He sounds several talking points outlined by President Bush during his State of the Union address in January, including the need to break the United States's dependence on foreign oil and the necessity of recruiting more math and science teachers to keep America ahead of the innovation curve.

* Mehlman insists the economy is extremely strong and portrays Democrats -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- as in favor higher taxes. "They argued against cutting taxes when we had a surplus ... and still wanted to raise them when the economy went into recession," says Mehlman. "When politicians with a record like this promise to hold a budget summit, you'd better watch your wallet."

* He devotes considerable time to perhaps the reddest of all red meat issues for conservatives -- the appointment of federal judges. "We stand for democracy; we stand for the Constitution; and that means we stand against judicial activism," Mehlman says. "And in 2006, we will choose whether we will continue to put judges on the federal bench who will interpret the law, not invent it."

* Mehlman casts the 2006 election as a "crossroads" for the country, putting it in the historical context of the struggles against communism in the 1940s, for civil rights in the 1960s and the Cold War of the 1980s. "The decisions we will make this year and in coming years will define the scope of freedom for a generation," he says.

The AP preview of the SRLC meeting is here.

And a few other tidbits from my first day in Memphis:

* Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was featured on the front page of Thursday's Memphis Commercial Appeal. The lengthy story detailed his weight loss and fitness fetish (both of which are now well-known by now to political junkies) as well as the buzz surrounding his presidential candidacy. Not as bad bit of local press for the upstart governor.

* Supporters of Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist are out in earnest heading into the straw poll vote tomorrow night. A number of people -- many of whom appeared to be in there 20s -- sported Frist buttons, and I even spotted a guy with a Frist T-shirt AND hat in the bar of the Peabody last night. The Frist operation clearly sees the straw poll as a must-win for the candidate and have turned out a significant bloc of backers to ensure victory.

Here's my set-up piece on the SRLC gathering from yesterday.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 10, 2006; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Republican Party  
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Next: GOP Straw Poll: Over Before It Starts?

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