WASHINGTON — This weekend's 34th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference was the largest ever, with 6,300 people registered. But attendees also couldn't remember a time when conservatives were so unsettled about their political future.
Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, one of eight announced or prospective presidential candidates to speak at CPAC, summed it up best when he said that perhaps for this year it should be renamed the "Conservative Presidential Anxiety Conference." He added, "The theme could be 'Dude, where is my candidate?' "
The desire for a candidate who unites the conservative movement the way Ronald Reagan did was palpable. Almost every presidential candidate invoked Reagan's name, and among participants in the CPAC straw poll, 79% described themselves as Reagan Republicans, whereas only 3% called themselves George W. Bush Republicans. Several speakers noted that Reagan had addressed CPAC a dozen times while Mr. Bush never has, sending Vice President Dick Cheney to speak in his place.
But CPAC attendees clearly wanted to pick a standard-bearer, and they packed the cavernous hall of the Omni-Sheraton Hotel here to listen to all the aspirants. Newt Gingrich, who isn't even a declared candidate, gave the most inspiring speech and drew the biggest laughs when he compared the government's refusal to let seniors make choices about their Medicare coverage to a hypothetical agency that would limit seniors to taking just three rigid cruise itineraries with all the meals identical. "Seniors seem to do quite well with choosing cruises, why not let them do the same with their health care?"
Most of the attention focused on the top tier of announced presidential candidates: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Mr. McCain hurt himself by declining to address CPAC; Mr. Giuliani helped himself by showing up but left lots of unanswered questions; and Mr. Romney used superior organization to win the conference straw poll, albeit narrowly, and thus can claim he has a clear demonstration of conservative support.
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