Rick Perry was everywhere, and he made some news with his pledge to rebel against the liberal establishment’s various oppressions. This guy is definitely running for president. Remember the slow, almost catatonic Rick Perry of the debates? He’s gone. The real Rick is back. Perry was energized, excited and, in small groups, seemed truly jazzed to meet and interact with people. The guy has a solid sense of how to campaign – he clearly loves it – and he was in full campaign mode.
Rand Paul was in full effect too, packing the auditorium for his speech on the second day. There were lots of “I Stand With Rand” stickers, and his supporters were all over the place. Paul could end up the conservative alternative to whatever washed-up moderate hack the panicking GOP Establishment tries to force down our throats in the primaries.
And speaking of Jeb Bush, he must have had a prior engagement.
But Chris Christie was there, and he had the biggest challenge of the attending potential candidates because the conservatives of CPAC largely dislike and distrust him. It was good to have him speak since, despite his recent troubles, there is a very real possibility he will be the nominee. Moreover, if he is the nominee (which is a huge “if”), he stands a pretty fair chance of beating Hillary. The left clearly thinks so – MSNBC wouldn’t be stalking him like a deranged ex-girlfriend if Christie wasn’t a threat.
Christie spoke on the first day, and it was commonly reported that he received a standing ovation coming in. That's technically correct, because some people stood and ovated, but a lot of people sat on their hands, both when he came in and when he left. And there were a lot of empty chairs in the room (You would have needed a can of grease and a crowbar to wedge yourself in when Rand Paul spoke).
Christie, a former trial lawyer, committed a cardinal error that one wouldn't normally expect from an experienced attorney. He didn't understand his jury and address his arguments to it. And there was a jury there to be sure. It was a jury of conservatives, and they were there to render judgment on him.
Chris Christie had to, so to speak, build a bridge to the conservative community. This was his opportunity to do it, and he didn't. His speech should have been directed to conservatives and have taken on the elephant in the room – we just don’t like him and we don’t trust him to be a real conservative. He wasn’t going to win us over then and there, but he could have started the process of regaining our trust. After all, if you want to win the nomination of a party that’s supposed to be conservative, you probably don’t want your name to provoke a stream of obscenities any time a conservative hears it.
But instead, Christie’s speech was just a recitation of basic Republican principles regarding small government and fiscal responsibility. The thing is, conservatives kind of expect that from a Republican. In fact, it was a bit patronizing – as was the reference to his pro-life views that kind of came out of left field, as if he thought that was going to make everything better. In the end, it seemed more like a routine speech to the Des Moines Lincoln Club than a gamechanger that reset his reputation with conservative activists.
That is not to say he didn’t deliver it well. He did. But what Christie needed to say was, “Hey, I'm one of you. Maybe we don't agree on everything, maybe I offended you in the past, but I'm a friend, and let's make up.” He didn't do that, and many conservatives sat on their hands when he got off stage.
The sad thing is for him that the “standing ovation” meme is going to be his takeaway. He no doubt thought he did great, maybe so great that he’s mollified those conservatives and won’t have to deal with them anymore. You get the impression from Christie that he probably doesn’t surround himself with people who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. If he wants to win the nomination – and to stop getting engulfed in hugely unnecessary scandals – he probably ought to get himself an advisor who’s not afraid to tell him “No.”
One thing was clear, though – Chris Christie is running for president.
Oh, and the most surprising thing about CPAC this year? Mark Levin is really tall.