Searching for Mr. Right

Posted: Mar 05, 2007 4:29 PM

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.

CPAC organizers are convinced Sen. McCain did not speak because he didn't want TV footage to show him "pandering" to the GOP's conservative base. Instead, his aides tried to book a room at the Sheraton to host a reception where their man could mingle with attendees behind closed doors. But no such room was available. "It was too cute by half and made people wonder why he campaigns as a conservative but doesn't want to be seen in public with them," American Conservative Union president David Keene told me. Mr. McCain told Fox News he didn't view those at CPAC as representative of conservative voters and said they were "Washington insiders." CPAC staffers shot back that attendees this year came from 49 states and less than 15% were from the D.C. metro area.

Mr. Giuliani clearly helped himself by showing up, but he gave only a standard iteration of his normal stump speech. Although effective, including a stirring call to implement school choice, the speech deliberately avoided issues such as abortion and gun control on which Mr. Giuliani disagrees with most conservatives. "He seemed nervous, as if he knew this wasn't his crowd," one attendee told me. "George Will gave a more convincing speech introducing him than Rudy did for himself."

Still, Mr. Giuliani can view CPAC as a success. With few volunteers present, he managed to attract 17% support in the straw poll, second only to Mr. Romney's 21%. (Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas won 15%, Mr. Gingrich 14% and Mr. McCain 12%). A surprising number of CPAC veterans are open to his candidacy. "He has exhibited toughness, and I think he would be the leader our [global] adversaries feared the most in the White House," Kathleen Teague, a former director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, told me. Several people told me they were struck by Mr. Giuliani's line "someone who agrees with me 80% of the time isn't my 20% enemy."

Following soon after Mr. Guiliani's speech, Mitt Romney clearly told the crowd what it wanted to hear. He delivered a pitch-perfect message that sought to unite economic, social and national-security conservatives. Fiscal conservatives were impressed with his pledge to limit increases in discretionary federal spending to below the inflation rate. Many liked his emphasis on limiting the role of courts in social issues and his vow to try to roll back the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

But despite his laundry list of conservative positions, he didn't completely win over the audience. His showing in CPAC straw poll over less organized candidates was only adequate. Anti-Romney volunteers were everywhere, busy passing out pairs of flip-flops to symbolize how quickly the former Massachusetts governor has shifted to the right on issues such as abortion. Romney supporters note that even Reagan evolved from a governor who in 1967 signed the most liberal abortion law in the country to a more conservative position.

Even some who are willing to give Mr. Romney a hearing express concern about whether he is the best candidate in a time of war. "You'd have to say his national-security credentials aren't great," conservative columnist Mona Charen told me last month. "He has to do more in that area."

So who is the front-runner for the GOP nomination now? Polls show Rudy Giuliani with a commanding lead nationwide. But well over half of GOP primary voters are unaware of his liberal positions on everything from guns to the 1996 federal welfare reform bill. John McCain has not helped himself with his recent identification with President Bush's Iraq policy, but no one doubts he has enormous staying power and could once again take the lead. Mitt Romney is clearly an underdog, although a new Los Angeles Times poll of 133 out of the 165 members of the Republican National Committee found him the favorite among these party insiders. He won backing from 20% of the RNC members, as opposed to 14% who plumped for Mr. Giuliani and 10% for Mr. McCain — results that roughly matched the CPAC straw poll results.

But a third of RNC members expressed no preference for president — a high number given the intensity of the race. That leaves hope for a posse of second-tier candidates, ranging from Mr. Huckabee to former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, that they can capture the attention of voters. "There's a vacuum right now for a truly conservative candidate," Mr. Gilmore told me just before he addressed the CPAC audience. "In the end, the battle for the Republican nomination comes down to which candidate convinces voters he is the most conservative who can still get elected in a general election."

Right now, the message of CPAC is that that job description hasn't been filled yet by anyone running or planning to run. That's why many CPAC attendees were eager to believe rumors that Jeb Bush or former senator Fred Thompson was about to enter the race. If conservatives were united on a 2008 candidate, such rumors would yield shrugs rather than excitement.