Credit: Mark Dent/Billy Penn

CAMP HILL, Pa. — Walk around the Vendor Hall at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference as someone used to Philadelphia politics, and you’d see conservative ideologies you might have forgotten existed.

There were tables displaying support for tax reform and union reform and cyber charter schools. There was a table warning Republicans that Tom Wolf’s “top, non-budget-related priority” is passing a “Bathroom Bill.” There was even a creationists’ table that also included a brochure titled “I WAS ‘GAY’: The testimony of Stephen Bennett.”

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Credit: Mark Dent/Billy Penn
Credit: Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Amid the presentations of so many facets of conservatism, presidential candidate John Kasich had a small table with a sign-up sheet for volunteers. It couldn’t hold a candle to the bounty of Ted Cruz, who had dozens of signs decorated with “Choose Cruz” on the path leading to the Radisson hotel holding this event. The afternoon featured an appearance from Kasich, but this was Cruz’s day (and maybe Trump’s, whose image was on a truck outside the event).

Kasich was challenged after he spoke. Cruz was practically feted. Many attendees wore buttons with the “Choose Cruz” motto, as well as “TrusTed.” Anytime his name was mentioned, the audience erupted with applause. When he finally took the stage, they began shouting, “Cruz, Cruz, Cruz.”

“God Bless the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” he began his speech.

Cruz said America is in crisis and that he was the one to carry the message of how to fix it. How would he do it? Cruz said he would focus on jobs, freedom and security. He promised to repeal Obamacare, to abolish the IRS (this got the loudest round of applause from the crowd), to ensure Second Amendment rights and to end sanctuary cities. And he engaged in plenty of anti-Obama rhetoric.

“Brussels…was inconvenient for Obama,” Cruz said. “It interrupted his baseball game with the Castros.”

A Franklin and Marshall poll for the Republican Primary released last week shows Donald Trump leading the state, barely ahead of Kasich. Cruz is behind both by double digits. But it all depends on the room, and it did not seem like that here.

At one point, while talking about the many endorsements he’s received, Cruz said, “You have the entire ideological spectrum of the Republican Party.” So there was his answer for what might fit all the conservatism on display in the hallway outside where Cruz was speaking: Himself.

Richard Backstrom, who lives in York County, didn’t even have a ticket but arrived in a “Maniacs for Cruz” t-shirt and Cruz 2016 hat to try his best — unsuccessfully — to get in. He said he doesn’t believe in the way the country is headed, particularly with regards to the First and Second Amendments.    

“And I’m talking about our own party,” he said.

In Kasich’s early afternoon speech, he said, “Conservatism really means, in its greatest form, opportunity for everyone.” He was certainly trying to appeal about everyone, spending an hour touting his pedigree that goes back to Reagan, criticizing Democrats and Republicans and trying to position himself as a moderate. Kasich spent extra time contrasting himself with Trump and his ideas for undocumented immigrants (he referred to Cruz once but not by name, saying he wondered why the country would want to elect a first-time senator to the presidency again).

The crowd peppered him with difficult questions about education during a Q&A session, and Kasich, a Pittsburgh-area native, awkwardly responded. People laughed and grumbled as he got into a discussion about teachers and nurses and then segued into “We just celebrated Easter. And life is short. I happen to believe the big guy (sorts out) justice yet to come.” Then Kasich said he’d take from athletes making millions and give to nurses and teachers (This after saying Pirates legend Roberto Clemente was his childhood hero).

Kasich even brought up Common Core, something he’s been attacked on before. He must not have walked around the Vendor Hall before his speech.

If he did, among the many messages and displays presented at this Republican gathering, he would have seen a sign comparing Common Core to a seven-headed monster.

Common core
Credit: Mark Dent/ Billy Penn

His speaking was rarely interrupted by applause or positive cheers. About the only response to something Kasich said was early in the speech when he said he went to Ohio State.

A Penn State fan shouted, “We Are.” 

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...