A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Mitt Romney may have won the straw poll but Sarah Palin won CPAC's heart—electrifying the Conservative Political Action Conference with one of the most rousing and effective political speeches of recent years. Both winners managed to advance the cause of conservative unity and raised the prospects for a competitive and formidable Republican challenge to Barack Obama's re-election.
Romney's win among conservative activists, especially combined with his simultaneous victory in the Maine caucuses completed on Saturday, will help to change the over-stated and misleading media narrative about Mitt's supposed inability to connect with his party's conservative base.
After spending three days at CPAC with a mob of 10,000 engaged activists, I can report with first-hand assurance that there's scant accuracy to all the reports of the right wing feeling dispirited or lackadaisical about the upcoming campaign. On my radio show (which I broadcast live from the site of the conference) I described the occasion as a "conservative Woodstock—without the drugs and without the nudity." Most certainly, a festive atmosphere prevailed, with hordes of well-scrubbed, eager-eyed, college-age volunteers and the vast majority of participants falling below the age of 55. All three of the presidential candidates who spoke got rousing receptions, as did any speaker (virtually all of them) who pronounced the words "most important election of our lifetime" and identified victory in November as an essential for national salvation. Ron Paul declined to participate this year for reasons that remain unclear (he won the straw poll the last two years) but his son, Senator Rand Paul, represented the libertarian family business with a good-natured but low-voltage pitch in his papa's behalf.
Gingrich in his Friday afternoon address exploded with energy and ideas, trying to live up to his reputation for unlikely political revivals as the GOP version of The Round Mound of Rebound. He used the word "establishment" so frequently that anyone who was playing a drinking game at home, toasting every invocation of these arrogant elites, would have plastered himself into insensibility. His acolytes cheered and shrieked but he underperformed in the straw poll with 15 percent—less than half the support of either Santorum or Romney. His supporters at CPAC seemed for the most part dejected and resentful and outnumbered, even before the announcement of the poll results late Saturday afternoon. Their only real contribution to the proceedings involved a snarky handout where they (falsely) announced the topic of Romney-supporter Ann Coulter's speech as "Why I Love Obamaneycare." I spoke to Ann after her ecstatically received address and she was less than amused.
There was also nothing amusing or energizing about Rick Santorum's appearance mid-day on Friday. He made the terrible mistake of asking his wife, Karen, and six of his kids to stand behind him as he spoke, where they looked like a particularly wholesome and youthful police lineup, squirming uncomfortably and wearing blank or sour expressions as their pater familias delivered a lengthy address. Anyone familiar with political advance work knows that it's great to introduce your family on stage, but please allow the poor, put-upon props to take a seat and relax before you launch into a half hour campaign speech.
Santorum's talk also projected a whining, sanctimonious air that seemed out of sync with the spirit of the occasion. He had just won miraculous upset victories in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado but his speech (delivered without notes or teleprompter, and with no organization or destination) sounded a tinny, funereal note of negativity and martyrdom. He chastised conservatives who had "lost heart" and "abandoned their principles" in the past, without specifying when or how. He implied that Republicans had somehow violated core values by nominating McCain last time (over Romney, the candidate that Santorum enthusiastically supported) without acknowledging that on abortion, marriage, national defense, balancing the budget, lowering corporate taxes, and other issues of importance to the former Pennsylvania senator, there was no change or compromise in the party platform. He also ignored the obvious question about how the Republicans would again "abandon principles" if this time they nominated Massachusetts Mitt, the same guy Santorum promoted last time.
The biggest problem with his talk wasn't substance, but style and tone. He actually frowned and even seemed to sneer during most of his address. Politicians aspire to the title "Happy Warrior," but the image of a morose warrior just doesn't work.
Romney's solid, self-confident speech served him much better—getting a particularly warm response when he specifically outlined what he meant to achieve in his first weeks as president. He'd presented most of this material before, but in a tight, unequivocal, concentrated form, it reassured the crowd of his conservative bona fides. Romney stickers and buttons competed with Santorum swag (including a special sale of sweater vests) as the most common signs of support at the conference, with Gingrich gear and Paul paraphernalia far less visible.
Mitt's straw poll victory therefore hardly counted as a shock, and the crowd reaction to its announcement must have reassured team Romney. Only a tiny smattering of boos rippled through the hall, overwhelmed by happy cheers and wide-spread polite applause. This reflected the general sentiments expressed in conversations everywhere—that Romney may not be the ideal candidate, or the first choice of many of the most eager activists, but he's conservative enough to run a good campaign and clearly preferable to Obama. At CPAC, it was hard to find any declarations of defection or desertion should Romney win selection as GOP general-in-chief.
But Sarah Palin's speech (the concluding, climactic event in the conference) showed the difference between respectful partnership (with Romney) and hopeless infatuation (with the former Alaska governor).
With her memorable acceptance speech at the Saint Paul convention in 2008, she showed she can project likeability, sincerity, and folksiness, but the CPAC address highlighted just how far she's come in the craft of public speaking. Looking radiant and joyous (yes, it helps) she spoke quickly, forcefully, masterfully—relishing her clever attack lines against the Obama administration and all its works. The populist tropes that wowed the audience offered a credible, conservative version of the 99 percent striking back, with pitchforks and torches, against the hated 1 percent—but in Sarah's saga, the 1 percent at fault are the "government rich" who have enjoyed boom times in D.C. while the rest of the nation suffered.
Her talk will no doubt work well on TV, but no media record can replicate the magical, rapturous atmosphere in the room—if CPAC could have written in Sarah's name, she could have won the straw poll in a walk (even with the towering, sex-in-the-city style high-heels she wore for the occasion).
The experience of hearing and seeing all these right wing icons on the same stage brought home the most important rule of effective political oratory: if you're loving the process of speaking to a crowd, you can't lose, but if you treat your talks as some sort of chore, you can't win. Sarah Palin not only provided pleasurable thrills to her adoring crowd, but seemed to receive her own ecstasy and energy from their delirious reaction. Few politicians can operate on this level of visceral connection: Reagan and Teddy Kennedy (I know they're an odd couple) did so regularly, and Bill Clinton occasionally.
While Rick Santorum demonstrated the opposite extreme (looking as if he viewed his address to a sympathetic crowd as a necessary ordeal), Newt Gingrich clearly enjoyed himself, but the edge of anger, resentment, and grouchiness that has crept into his recent addresses still marred his hyper-kinetic performance art.
As for Romney, many of his stump speeches have seemed dutiful and dull. He doesn't resent the necessary political rituals, exactly, but seems to treat them as a benign necessity—like a tough, strenuous workout at the gym, he knows it’s good for him, but it doesn’t exactly provide pleasure. At CPAC, at least, he not only rose to the occasion with his address but notably warmed to the occasion—and to the crowd as he sensed their sympathy. Because he had a reasonably good time with this gathering, so did we.
Moving forward, conservatives may not feel ready to pledge eternal troth to the increasingly likely GOP nominee, but the spirit of CPAC suggests that they're willing to begin settling in with Mitt for an important and increasingly inevitable partnership.