The annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington has come and gone. When I first participated in the revival of CPAC conferences with Fritz Rench in 1973 there were about 300 participants. This year the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the event, reported some 1,700 paid registrants. When all participants, including non-paying students, reporters, speakers and merchants were clocked in, the ACU says some 6,500 folks graced their doors. That is extraordinary. It shows that conservatives were looking for direction. I’m not sure that they received it.
As for me, I spent the whole time (when I wasn’t on a panel) being interviewed by reporters galore who wanted me to explain why Rudy Giuliani was popular at this bastion of conservatism when other candidates with a far better record of conservatism were not chosen. (Giuliani placed second in the CPAC straw poll). My answer was this, recognizing it was off the cuff and imperfect. I told the reporters those grassroots folks (the kind who come to CPAC and run for delegate in their state) are looking to a candidate who can defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.).
They reject Sen. John McCain, III (R.-Ariz.) because the perception is that he hates religious conservatives. But those who don’t care about that have problems with him because they disapprove of McCain-Feingold, the so-called campaign reform act which greatly hinders conservatives from getting out their message. I have had key conservatives tell me “I can never vote for him, period.”
Then these conservative activists look at former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. They tell me he is slick. They further tell me that they cannot believe his answers as to why he now is pro-life. (He had been pro-abortion until 2003 when he began to think of a presidential race.) He claimed that his seeing an ultrasound made him believe that life begins at conception.
The activists looked at the second-tier candidates who were asked to speak. They had no organization to push delegates toward the straw poll as did the front runners. So what the attendees saw is what they got. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the sentimental favorite. He still is more interesting and creative than his rivals. The problem for his supporters is that he has declared that if no other conservative has caught on by September or October of this year, then he will decide if he will run. In politics, that is an eternity.
The second-tier candidate whose name I heard the most was Gov. Mike Huckabee, who hails from of all places — Hope, Arkansas. He has finished tenure of 10 years as governor of Arkansas. Only Bill Clinton served longer as governor. The surprise presentation was made by former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia. Gilmore is hardly known outside Virginia but I was told by many that he made a powerful case for conservatism. Also favorably noticed was Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.).
As these conservatives look for the line-up, they are not impressed by McCain, they think Romney is insincere and that none of the second-tier candidates can go the distance, so in view of all of that Giuliani looks good. According to polls released during CPAC he was the one candidate who could defeat Hillary.
Unfortunately, fear of Hillary dominates this campaign on the conservative side. They believe if she were elected, with a strongly Democratic Congress, she would shut down talk radio by the re-enactment of the Fairness Doctrine. They believe further she would censor and tax the Internet. They know she is for higher taxes and her proposal to take the profits of the oil companies and turn them over to companies which are developing alternative fuels scares the life out of these activists. So Rudy with his third marriage, and favoring gay rights and gun control, can have his issue views overlooked simply because he can defeat Hillary. That is why he has gained even among white Evangelical conservatives. Later, when his positions become clearer, and the details of his marriages are known, Rudy’s support is likely to begin to drop. Who will get that support is anyone’s guess. Some, but not all, Evangelicals feel they cannot support Romney because, they believe, the Mormon church is a cult.
If one of the second-tier candidates could bump up to be first-tier then most likely the slate would be complete. Just who that will be is an open question. What doesn’t help in this process is that we are about a year away from the first primaries. With the large states creating a Super Tuesday so that more than half of the delegates to the national convention will be selected by the middle of February, it is beginning to look as if only the wealthy can run for President or even for U.S. senator. That is a tragedy for the American political system — one which, I fear, we will regret but never repeal.