Reporting from Washington — Developer and reality-show star Donald Trump added a touch of glitz and hubris to the CPAC conference Thursday, making a surprise and somewhat surreal appearance to tell the crowd that he still has not decided whether to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
"This country is in serious trouble," Trump said. He said the United States "is becoming the laughingstock of the world."
"America is missing quality leadership," he said. "I am well acquainted with winning."
Much of his speech was devoted to self-promotion as Trump spoke of his credentials as an entrepreneur and a businessman. "We need a competitive person. We need a highly competent person or we're going to have serious trouble very quickly."
He said the U.S. had not stood up to China or the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, warning that gas prices would hit $8 or $9 a gallon within a year.
For much of his appearance on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump had the crowd eating out his hand until he hit a tripwire, telling them that Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, had no chance of getting elected. The cheers then turned to catcalls.
"I like Ron Paul, but he has no chance of getting elected," Trump said. Paul won the presidential straw poll at CPAC last year.
Trump, who Republican activists say has been attempting to recruit staff in Iowa in advance of a possible run, left the stage to the tune of the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money." He said he would make a decision on his candidacy by June.
Fresh off a public spat with Sarah Palin, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also addressed the gathering.
Santorum, another possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate, clearly staked out political turf as a cultural conservative, straying from what has been the dominant threads here of healthcare and the economy.
"The social issues. Those are the issues that matter," Santorum said. "Those are the issues that bind us together and those are the issues that we cannot retreat on."
Santorum is an ardent opponent of abortion rights and also criticized President Obama for failing to condemn the spread of Jihadism and Sharia law.
He also appeared to condemn the Obama administration for abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while failing to support an uprising in Iran in 2009. "This is not a policy that will add to the security of this country."
Interviewed earlier in the week, Santorum suggested that Palin could not attend CPAC because she's a mother and because of other commitments, including some with "financial benefits" to them.
On Fox News Channel Wednesday, Palin denied she was skipping CPAC because she was not being paid — or because she's a mother. "Just because I'm a mom that does not mean that I didn't want to be there," she said. "I'm the proud mother of five‚ my kids don't hold me back from attending a conference."
"I will not call him the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal," Palin added. " I'll let his wife call him that instead."
Santorum's appearance included another surreal moment: He arrived and left the stage to "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac, made famous as the theme of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.