Thursday afternoon an excited crowd of conservative activists — including many supporters of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — convened in the main ballroom of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington DC to hear Romney speak. They waved their foam “Mittens” and clapped their inflatable Romney sticks. Little did they know he was about to suspend his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination.
The crowd rose to their feet as Romney took the stage. Syndicated radio talk show host Laura Ingraham introduced Romney as the only conservative in the race. Romney’s speech was passionate, perhaps more so than any other he has given. He spoke of social and fiscal issues with conviction and sentiment registering on his face and in his voice.
“What is it about American culture that has led us to become the most powerful nation in the history of the world?” asked Romney.
“We believe in hard work and education. We love opportunity: almost all of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who came here for opportunity — opportunity is in our DNA. Americans love God, and those who don’t have faith, typically believe in something greater than themselves — a ‘Purpose Driven Life.’ And we sacrifice everything we have, even our lives, for our families, our freedoms and our country. The values and beliefs of the free American people are the source of our nation’s strength and they always will be.”
But this time there was no “call and answer” chanting of “yes we can” change Washington, as Romney’s campaign speeches have so often included.
It was not until Romney’s mention of national security and the War in Iraq at the tail end of his speech that the crowd had any inkling that Romney would leave them.
The crowd booed when Romney mentioned John McCain. “I disagree with Senator McCain on a number of issues, as you know. But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, on finding and executing Osama bin Laden, and on eliminating Al Qaeda and terror.”
And then there it was, “If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror,” said Romney.
Confusion registered on the faces around me — even his young campaign staffers who handed out posters like cheerleaders just minutes before seemed shocked by his words. Inflatable Romney sticks slowly sunk out of the air.
“No!” the crowd shouted.
“Don’t leave us Mitt,” someone exclaimed.
“Did he just concede?” asked confused supporters.
As the gasping crowd looked around Mitt finished his speech with tears welling up in his eyes. “This is not an easy decision for me. I hate to lose. My family, my friends and our supporters — many of you right here in this room — have given a great deal to get me where I have a shot at becoming President. If this were only about me, I would go on. But I entered this race because I love America, and because I love America, I feel I must now stand aside, for our party and for our country.”
Romney and his wife Ann waved goodbye to the crowd and his supporters aimlessly pushed their way out of the ballroom. Al Regnery, American Spectator’s publisher, asked the crowd to sit down so the conference could continue on, “and particularly so that when 3 o’clock comes, Mr. Romney’s main opponent will be able to have some time as well.” said Regnery salting the wounds.
According to various reports soon after Romney’s speech, John McCain called Romney and told him he “admired his speech today and that he was a tough competitor.” The Huckabee campaign has said the former Arkansas governor would push on.
Romney’s suspension is due to his lackluster results in Super Tuesday’s primaries. Romney won only 175 delegates compared to about 504 for McCain and 141 for Huckabee. Party rules let Romney keep the 286 total delegates he won because he has “suspended” his campaign though McCain (and Huckabee although it’s unlikely due to the animosity between the two campaigns) can still try to gain their support.
Romney’s ‘bow out’ has changed the tone of the Conservative Political Action Conference — and as much as I hate to say it — perhaps for the better. CPAC is event that means to bring conservatives together and to invoke strength. The division between McCain and Romney supporters drew a strong line through the party.
Romney asked that Republicans stand united in hopes of “preventing Senators Clinton and Obama from taking the White House.” His actions remind CPAC attendees and conservatives that there is a larger battle at stake. Conservatives will probably have to do what Sen. McCain’s aged mother said about a week ago: hold their noses and vote for her son.