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CPAC: Winners and Losers

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza complies a list of his winners and losers from CPAC 2011, which wrapped up on Saturday:

Winners

Mitt Romney: For the former Massachusetts governor, the expected front-runner in the 2012 nomination fight, his goal with his CPAC speech was to do no harm. He did far better than that with a very well-received address and a strong second-place finish in the straw poll. If any of the top-tier candidates strengthened their hand at CPAC, it was Romney.

Mitch Daniels: The Indiana governor's sobering speech about the danger of the country's growing debt was a sharp contrast to the red-meat heavy addresses of his potential rivals for the 2012 nod. Although the speech was received politely in the hall, it was met with effusive praise by the party's smart set, the national media and, interestingly, the Drudge Report.

Michele Bachmann: No candidate benefited more from the absence of social conservative rock stars Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee than the Minnesota congresswoman. Bachmann's speech kicking off CPAC had the crowd on its feet and she was regularly surrounded by a cadre of admirers everywhere she went at the convention.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor may have had the toughest speaking slot of the three-day conference, as his address came directly after Paul delivered his remarks. As hundreds of Paul-ites were shuffling out of the room, Perry took the stage to tout his now-familiar message about states' rights and anti-Washington rhetoric. By the end of the address, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand - proving again that if he reconsiders his past pledge not to run for president, he will be a formidable force.

Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor - and national conservative sensation - didn't address the CPAC crowd but still managed to tie for third place in the straw poll, beating out a number of 2012 wannabes who did deliver speeches.

Losers

Ron Paul: Yes, he won the straw poll for the second straight year. But his speech - heavy on talk of defunding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as odd pronouncements such as "Government should never be able to do anything you can't do" - displayed the limits of his reach within the GOP. Paul is a sensation, but among only a sliver of the Republican electorate.

Rick Santorum: CPAC attendees should have been a perfect fit for the former senator's brand of social conservatism. And, for those who watched his speech, Santorum (Pa.) did just fine. But, the room was less than two-thirds full during his remarks - an attendance issue that highlighted his potential difficulties in breaking through in the crowded field.

Orrin Hatch: On one hand, the Utah senator's willingness to face down his conservative critics at CPAC is worthy of admiration. On the other, the rocky reception he received could presage problems for him next year as he seeks the nomination. Asked about his vote for the Troubled Assets Relief Program in 2008, Hatch acknowledged that voting for the legislation was "probably" a mistake before pivoting to note that the country would have gone into an economic depression without TARP.

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I'm not interested in endorsing or condemning Cillizza's picks, but I will add my own perspective:

-Team Romney registered an undeniably strong performance this weekend.  His remarks were embraced warmly by an overflow crowd and his straw poll finish far outpaced all other credible GOP candidates.  That said, he studiously avoided the thorny issue of healthcare, and ducked the media.  Tight message control can help manufacture a "win" at a conference like CPAC, but Romney certainly realizes that in the longer run, he'll need to devise a compelling strategy to counter anti-Romneycare volleys from his opponents and the press.

- I've made little secret of how deeply I admired Mitch Daniels' thoughtful address on Friday night.  Cillizza describes the reception of the speech in the ballroom as "polite," as opposed to the rapturous response from the party's "smart set" and others.  Having been in attendance during the speech, I think this description misses the mark.  Daniels charmed the crowd.  His remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause, his jokes and clever turns of phrase elicited laughter, and he received a sustained standing ovation when he concluded.  Cillizza may have detected a schism between the CPAC base and the Beltway set on Daniels speech, but I did not.
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- Rick Perry's message was appealing and interesting, but I'm not sure he ever had the crowd "in the palm of his hand."  I suppose this is too subjective a standard to fairly assess -- and could be influenced by any number of factors (ie, where in the hall an observer is sitting, etc).  I agree that if Perry jumps into the nomination battle, he could be a force to be reckoned with.

- Cillizza is right to (somewhat paradoxically) rank New Jersey Governor Chris Christie among the conference's winners, even though he didn't attend.  In addition to his surprisingly strong straw poll finish, Christie's name was enthusiastically cheered whenever it was invoked from the podium.  I got the sense that if Christie had agreed to address the conservative confab, his would have been one of the most anticipated and well-attended speeches of the weekend.

- I am no fan of Ron Paul -- neither on style nor substance.  But I also think it's unfair to categorize him as a CPAC "loser."  His legions of followers stuffed the ballot box to produce a presidential straw poll win, and he generally commanded a disproportionate degree of attention and devotion.  Ron Paul's views and presidential aspirations are sure losers in the grand scheme of conservative politics, so let's not rob him of the satisfaction of his fleeting and meaningless CPAC "win."
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UPDATE - Jennifer Rubin strongly dissents from the proposition that Mitt Romney was a CPAC winner:

...If there is one point of consensus among plugged-in Republicans on the 2012 field, it is that Romney can't win unless he does a mea culpa on RomneyCare. Since he didn't and he won't do that, he's not going to be the nominee. Other than Romney admirers (and even some of them!) it's hard to find serious Republican players who disagree with that. And so when Romney ignored the topic at CPAC, he hardly did "no harm." To the contrary, he simply reinforced the notion that he has an insuperable problem.

UPDATE II - It turns out the DNC wasn't too fond of the rhetoric at CPAC.  Go figure:



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