Mary Katharine Ham

I just got back from CPAC. During these three days--just a little less than two years out of a presidential election-- prognosticators, pundits, and plain old people have been wandering the exhibit hall, rapt at speeches, and wrangling public opinion to try to glean some clue as to whom conservatives might throw their weight in the 2008 primary season. And, what will make them throw it any which direction?

One helpful, anecdotal measure of conservative feeling is the reaction to applause lines. So, what are conservatives clapping about these days?

Michael Steele.
The Maryland Lt. Governor and former senate candidate emceed Thursday night's dinner, garnering at least one standing ovation upon his entrance. He also spoke of being the first African-American elected state-wide in Maryland, and of the honor of using the same office as Thomas Jefferson once used when the fledgling nation's capital was in Annapolis.

"I'm sure Thomas Jefferson wonders, 'how did a brother wind up in my office?'...There are probably some conservatives in here who wonder 'how did a brother wind up at CPAC?' Well, I want to tell you, there are a whole lot of conservative brothers and sisters out there. We should be about opening up the doors and the windows and inviting everyone to our table because it's the table of opportunity."

John Bolton.
The Stand-Off 'Stache was on hand to give the keynote on Thursday night, and also earned a raucous standing ovation.

Wayne LaPierre.
Big applause for the gun guru, but not quite a standing O, which reflects the success of the gun movement more than a lack of enthusiasm. Because so many gun battles have been won, the issue is less urgent than it once was.

David Keene of the American Conservative Union thanked Vice President Dick Cheney for being there and thanked the Lord he was able to make it, making reference to the recent attempt on the VP's life in Afghanistan:

"That he survived that attempt on his life is something for which we should all be grateful. That he is here with us tonight is something we should all celebrate."

Huge applause for that. Quite the contrast with some of our friends on the other side of the aisle.
President Bush. Perhaps the least talked-about elected official at CPAC was the President himself. Folks talked about the surge, the troops, the war, the economy, but never the man himself. In his speech, Cheney "brought personal greetings to all of you from our President George W. Bush."

Meh. He got one enthusiastic "woo!" but mostly one-step-above-polite applause.

Judges. Could it be that conservative activists and voters have finally cooled on the judges issue? it used to be that a call for judges "not to legislate from the bench" would get them dancing in the aisles-- to the extent that CPAC attendees can be expected to dance, that is. Cheney made reference to Bush's two strong Supreme Court picks, and called for more "well-qualified, mainstream" picks like Roberts and Alito for the federal bench.

The applause was underwhelming.

Rudy. You know he's a rock star because he goes by just one name. Giuliani's entrance, set to "New York, New York" of course, was the loudest of any I heard. There was a capacity crowd inside the hall, a line outside it, and crowds around the exhibit hall TVs throughout the mayor's speech with big, goofy smiles on their faces.

Mitt Romney. Romney's crowd was about the same size, but he didn't create the same euphoria as Rudy. He did have the Mitt Army-- a huge crowd of young volunteers lining every hallway of the Omni Shoreham with Mitt signs and T-shirts. And, he needed the Army for defense. Next to McCain, Romney took the most shots of any presidential candidate during CPAC. Someone was handing out brightly colored Romney flip-flops with facts on his changing views on life issues and gun control. A guy in a dolphin costume--Flipper-- took Romney to task for his changes on abortion.

John McCain. Chirp, chirp, chirp.

There was no applause for the Maverick at CPAC this year, but there was plenty of talk about him. The general consensus was that it was a mistake for him not to show up, but folks conceded there was no good way for him to make an appearance. Because conservatives have been so ticked at him for so long, walking into CPAC would not have been easy.

But, you don't make inroads unless you start driving. McCain would have faced a tough crowd. He is the McCain of campaign finance reform and the "Gang of Fourteen." But, a long time ago, he was the John McCain who was introduced by Ronald Reagan at the very first CPAC, in the very first paragraph of his "city upon a hill" speech.

"There are three men here tonight I am very proud to introduce. It was a year ago this coming February when this country had its spirits lifted as they have never been lifted in many years. This happened when planes began landing on American soil and in the Philippines, bringing back men who had lived with honor for many miserable years in North Vietnam prisons. Three of those men are here tonight, John McCain, Bill Lawrence and Ed Martin. It is an honor to be here tonight. I am proud that you asked me and I feel more than a little humble in the presence of this distinguished company."
When it comes to conservative nostalgia, you can't do much better than that. Had he come in, faced the music, and opened with that anecdote, the audience would have been at least polite out of respect for McCain's office, Reagan's memory, and their own sense of decorum. And, McCain would have avoided the charge of once again snubbing conservatives.

Sam Brownback. Brownback had a smaller crew of volunteers on hand, but they were aggressive. Romney and Brownback both made their way down radio and bloggers' row at around the same time-- a step Rudy did not take-- and Brownback's chanting sign-holders set about drowning out the much bigger Mitt Army. Very Jets and Sharks, but with more pearls and bow ties. Brownback's supporters were passionate, but the tone of the shouting got a little off-putting. Who would have thought Brownback's supporters would be so hard?

National security was probably the No. 1 applause issue of the week.

From Cheney's speech, "I think it's important to remind that troops that we believe in them, that we believe in what they're doing, and that we're going to back them 100 percent... We must remember that we're a nation at war and we must not cut any corners on homeland security...All watching nations need to know we're a nation that keeps its word and understands the consequences of failure."

From Rudy's speech, "Maybe we made a mistake in calling this the war on terrorism. This is not our war on them. This is their war on us." (Prolonged applause.)...This war isn't over when they stop planning to come over here and kill us. Until then, we have to remain on offense against terrorists."

Taxes and earmarks.

Cheney's line on earmarks was one of the biggest applause lines in his speech: "Ninety percent of earmarks never make it to the floor of the house or Senate. The Congress did not pass them into law. The President didn't sign them into law, and yet they somehow get treated as if they have the force of law...The time has come to reform the budget process and get earmarks under control."

The fact that a formerly obscure, good-government issue like earmark reform has become an applause line is thanks in large part to the blogosphere's efforts under the banner of Porkbusters, and it's a great sign for good government that the issue has proved popular enough for speech writers to stick it in most of the talk that comes out of the White House.

"No nation has ever taxed its way to prosperity," was another big line.

Romney offered more specifics on his would-be tax policies as president than most of his other proposals, and people liked what they heard.

So, a concentration on security, smaller government, and lower taxes, and underwhelming noise for the judges issue at CPAC. Romney and McCain get beat up while Rudy gets a enthusiastic reception and a pro-life pass. In happy hour talk, folks were asking "can Rudy actually pull it off?" Judging by the applause-o-meter this weekend, his chances are looking better.

Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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