MEMPHIS — More than 1,800 delegates from 32 states — as well as a swarm of national news reporters — descended on the storied Peabody Hotel today for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. The GOP conclave took on particular national significance as the party’s first "cattle call" for the 2008 presidential race.
On hand to speak and hobnob with the participants were Arizona Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee’s favorite son — all widely mentioned as GOP successors to George W. Bush. Not running for President but prominent at the SRLC were Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Other party notables were expected at the three-day conference.
No sooner had delegates, reporters and guests registered at the Peabody today than the first bombshell of the conference. McCain supporters called on delegates who are eligible to vote in a "straw vote" for the ’08 presidential race not to vote for their man, but rather to write-in the name of President Bush (who is ineligible to run for a third term in ’08).
"The idea is to support the President and support the troops," John Yob, a Michigan operative in McCain’s "Straight Talk America" political action committee, explained to me. "And we should be focusing on the elections we’re having this year." Yob handed me a sticker bearing the message McCain was expected to underscore in his address to the conference this evening: "Support our Troops! Support our President! Write-in President Bush. … Focus on 2006."
Was this, as some skeptics were speculating with me earlier, a ploy by McCain’s team to stop what they fear will be a poor showing by their man among Southern Republicans? Not at all, Yob insisted, adding that "Sen. Lott and Gov. Barbour are behind the write-in for the President. Sen. Lott even wore a ‘write-in’ sticker when he appeared on MSNBC’s ‘Hardball’ program [which is featured live from the Peabody Hotel this weekend]."
"I’m glad to hear Sen. McCain is supporting the President — all Republicans at this conference support the President," Twinkle Cavanaugh, Republican state chairman of Alabama, told me. "I plan to vote for a candidate for ’08, but it has to be a secret because, as party chairman, I am required to stay publicly neutral."
Michigan State Chairman Saul Anuzis was more critical, dubbing the move by the McCain forces "a clever political move that has absolutely nothing to do with supporting the President. Ninety-nine percent of the people here support the President. This is the first legitimate straw poll being held in the country for the ’08 Republican nomination." Like Cavanaugh, Anuzis intends to vote for a candidate and told me "my vote in no way reflects on the President."
Sparks are sure to fly on this, Stay tuned, Gizz-ette groupies!
P.S. Diverting attention from the "write-in" effort and from the politicians at the Southern Republican Conference were the Peabody’s famed ducks. Since the early 1930s, ducks — who actually stay in the century-old hotel’s penthouse — have marched out without fail at 11 on a red carpet and are marched back at 5, under the tutelage of a duckmaster. The processions are held, according to hotel business center manager Donald Fort, "without fail, every day, and on holidays." In recounting the history of the beloved Peabody ducks, Fort told me: "Celebrities and presidents have stayed at this hotel for generations. But the hotel isn’t about celebrities or presidents — it’s about the ducks!" (Fort is an on-call duckmaster).
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