Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- If you’re a Republican thinking of running for president -- and who isn’t? -- the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is the base you have to touch.
It doesn’t hurt to stop by, even if you don’t have Oval Office aspirations. In 2009, Rush Limbaugh, dressed as Johnny Cash and bouncing up and down like a bobble-head doll on a dashboard, drove the crowd wild.
There was no such rapture this year for the 11,000 conservatives, almost all white, almost all Republican, with a hard-core group of libertarians sprinkled in. Tea Party firebrand Representative Michele Bachmann had to tell the audience to stand up three times as she shouted her usual crowd-rousing, “Obama will be a one-term president.”
Maybe the high of November has passed. Maybe a 15-candidate straw ballot is too much to cope with. Certainly, across town on Capitol Hill, the new Republican majority in the House was having trouble governing.
Conservatives may ultimately get their wish to kill government programs they don’t like in the guise of deficit reduction -- down with “Car Talk,” Big Bird and food inspections (and hello, E. coli). But it bodes ill for Republicans when they can’t muster the votes needed to extend parts of the Patriot Act.
Still, CPAC is one-stop shopping, a way to see most of the characters likely soon to be crisscrossing the cornfields of Iowa. The closest thing to Limbaugh this year was Donald Trump, who came into the house on a few hours notice but with enough time for him to make some attitude adjustments.
Change of Heart
Last time I checked, Trump was no conservative. He played one on Thursday: He’s now pro-life and pro-gun, along with anti-tax, tired of America being disrespected and China-phobic (their products stink). He says he will decide in June whether to sacrifice his great life for the abuse that comes with running.
Trump was a harmless diversion, except for the curious moment when he declared that Representative Ron Paul has “zero chance of getting elected.” Though Paul is beloved at CPAC -- for the second straight year he won the straw poll -- at least half the room cheered Trump’s putdown. Paul isn’t going to be moving his gold bars into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue unless the end of days comes to pass, but didn’t these folks come to dream the impossible dream? Are they suddenly pragmatic?
No one has less celebrity and more intelligence going for him than the diminutive, balding Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, who dreams of helping those “on the first rung of life’s ladder” even as congressional Republicans plan cuts in federal funding to women, infants and children and to those who need help paying for heat in the winter.
A genuine conservative who worked in the Reagan White House, Daniels may not be conservative enough in 2011.
“Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it,” he said, “but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some.” With a heart bleeding that profusely, he was lucky to get 4 percent in the straw poll.
Unlike Daniels, who is at one with his accountant’s demeanor, the formerly mild-mannered Tim Pawlenty must have gotten ready for CPAC by having a consultant force-feed him Dirty Harry movies. Suddenly, just about everything seems to anger the former two-term governor of Minnesota.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney performed well but didn’t kill. Romney came in a respectable second in the straw poll. How significant is a good showing? Ask President Romney, who won the straw polls in 2007 and 2008.
Sarah Palin didn’t perform at all, and her absence was pointedly noted by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who is selling himself as the Most Conservative Candidate Who Might Run. In a radio interview, he provocatively mused about whether Palin’s “other responsibilities,” like being a mother of five, or “other business opportunities,” an apparent reference to her paid speech-making, had kept her away.
It takes much less than that for Palin to haul out the nukes. (A few weeks ago -- before his personality transplant -- Pawlenty seemed to backtrack on his very mild criticism of Palin.) Though stopping short of committing blood libel, Mama Grizzly did say Santorum’s wife should call him a “knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.”
As always, the CPAC exhibition space offered a window into the psyche of the attendees.
There was all the Reagan memorabilia a mantle could hold, and, for $20, an Obama presidency countdown clock. For free, you could “become a Luce Lady,” spin a wheel (I won a pocket constitution), embrace abstinence, or put your support behind stopping immigration and cutting taxes.
At the John Birch Society’s booth, the group’s president, John McManus, was all too ready to explain why the pro-gay-rights organization down the way, GOProud, was ruining his neighborhood. The Family Research Council refused to show up at all.
Amid the bumper stickers was “Will Work for Ammo.” It made me think that CPAC itself is running a bit low on ammunition, not to mention a genuine frontrunner to lead the charge back to the White House.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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