Haley Barbour
Cliff Owen  /  AP
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Saturday.
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updated 2/14/2011 8:36:31 AM ET 2011-02-14T13:36:31

Republicans who want to be the one to make Democrat Barack Obama a one-term president are promising big changes should their party win the White House in 2012.

"Economic growth, job creation, smaller government, less spending, lower taxes, rational regulation and a stronger presence in the world," as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour put it Saturday — echoing a slew of others also considering running.

These grandiose pledges sell well to the die-hard conservatives who play an outsized early role in determining the Republican nominee.

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But would — could — Republicans do all they say?

Probably not.

The realities of governing often conflict with the rhetoric of campaigning.

Just ask Obama, who often says: "Change is hard."

He had some major achievements in his first two years, including the new health care law. But he failed to make good on other campaign promises — closing the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected terrorists, for example.

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Now in charge of the House, Republican leaders are discovering for themselves that it's not easy to keep pledges made in the heat of a campaign.

They said last year they would cut $100 billion from the federal budget. Once put into power, they soon scaled back their goal, a concession to the difficulty of slicing into pet projects.

Under pressure now from first-term lawmakers backed by the ultraconservative Tea Party, they're trying to stick to their original goal.

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Countless factors at play
Countless factors play into the success or failure of making campaign agendas reality after an election.

The political environment often determines which policies are proposed, which become law. Divided government always causes hiccups. Even if one party controls all levers of government, that's no guarantee common goals will prevail.

Tea Party-backed lawmakers are causing headaches for Republican leaders today, much as liberals have done for the White House over the past two years.

Unforeseen circumstances — wars, a recession — also can derail the best laid plans.

But all that was lost on the Republican presidential wannabes who auditioned before more than 10,000 people at this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest such gathering of the year so far and the unofficial kickoff of the 2012 Republican nomination fight.

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One by one, Republican hopefuls sketched out a broad vision of America under Republican rule, hoping to woo conservatives whose support is critical. There was little daylight on the major policy issues. Most emphasized longtime conservative tenets — lower taxes, smaller government, a strong defense — and called for scrapping Obama's health care plan.

"We need to restore American confidence, American optimism, and America's hope for the future. We need to restore the American Dream by restoring American common sense," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a pitch he seemed to acknowledge was lofty.

"None of this is going to be easy," Pawlenty added.

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Short on specifics
Still, all suggested they'd bring wholesale change. They found time to bash Obama in the process.

"It's going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work — it's going to take a new president," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said.

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So how would Romney bring jobs back and turnaround the economy?

He didn't spell it out, saying only: "The right answer is to believe in America — to believe in free enterprise, capitalism, limited government, federalism — and to believe in the constitution, as it was written and intended by the founders."

Sen. John Thune suggested overhauling the government's pension program as well as its health care benefits for the poor and elderly, and changing how business is done in the partisan capital by ending "backroom deals and big government ways." He ignored the fact that others before him have tried — and failed.

Many were short on specifics on how they'd do it all.

Details, to be sure, will come over the next year. No Republican has announced a candidacy though several are gearing up. Once they do, the pressure for specifics will increase.

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Several, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, used examples from their states to explain how they would shift the country to more conservative governance.

Aware of the heavy lifting needed, Daniels told an audience demanding purity in their candidates: "We must unify America, or enough of it, to demand and sustain the big change we propose."

Others started to try to distinguish themselves from the pack with proposals that at first blush seem extraordinarily difficult — if not unlikely — to accomplish.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for replacing the Environmental Protection Agency — "made up of self-selected bureaucrats, who are anti-American jobs, anti-American business, anti-state government, anti-local control" — with an agency focused on environmental and energy solutions.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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