- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin´s name and face were there, on ubiquitous buttons and posters. But she wasn’t.

Several other high-profile Republicans considered contenders to help the GOP rebound from its 2008 electoral drubbing weren’t attending either.

But for activists at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, which wrapped up Saturday, there´s already a leader unifying them: President Obama.

From old to young, it’s clear they’ve been mobilized by what they consider an assault on their values by the new Democratic president, who´s mocked their belief in low taxes, limited government and free-market capitalism.

“From promoting abortion rights internationally to growing government to the biggest size in history, Obama and the Democrats are trying to destroy everything that conservatives stand for,” said Scotty Robertson, a junior at Marshall University. “I think strong leaders like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay are great, but I think their time for a role in public office is over. I’m looking for young leaders who have the stamina to win a national election.”

Bret Moelle, who just graduated from the University of New York at Albany agreed, saying “the reason that there’s such a big turnout at CPAC this year is that President Obama and his administration just spending money like drunken sailors has really gotten conservatives going back to their roots.”

Besides their disdain for Mr. Obama, many of the attendees and speakers have openly knocked former President George W. Bush and admit to the failure of the Republican Party’s big-spending ways when it controlled the nation’s purse strings. Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele made clear that “conservatism” is the salve to the self-inflicted wound of the Bush administration’s excessive spending and efforts to export democracy.

Mr. Steele implored the largest gathering ever of CPAC to “become a revolution; a revolution of new ideas, of opportunity; a revolution that embraces the dignity and aspirations of every American,” to thunderous applause.

However, early indications are that the movement’s faithful, including Mr. Steele, see the revolution in terms of rebranding their beliefs, and they think they got an early wake-up call from an unlikely place - Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee and never a favorite of conservatives.

Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, said Mr. McCain’s stepping forward early in the Obama administration was “absolutely” crucial during the debate on the $787 billion stimulus bill.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Mr. McCain, booed by many in the audience at last year’s CPAC, helped the party find its footing by identifying the stimulus package as a massive, pork-filled spending frenzy.

Mr. McCain appears ready to battle his former foe, Mr. Obama, but will likely not be looked toward for long. He already has ruled out a repeat run in 2012 and has made clear that he expects other Republicans to step up soon to be standard-bearers for the party.

“After a party suffers an election loss, there is always a leadership vacuum,” Mr. Keene said. “While Republicans appreciate Senator McCain’s opposing the excesses in the Obama spending package, Republicans are looking for a new generation of leaders and are definitely not looking backward to people like John McCain.”

One of the young Republicans the party hopes to turn to for leadership is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 37, who gave the GOP’s response to Mr. Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.

But the performance by the son of immigrant parents from India disappointed some Republicans and conservatives for its content and style, said Craig Shirley, another prominent Republican consultant and author of two books on Ronald Reagan.

“Still, he’s on the short list of possible GOP leaders, mainly because the list is so short,” Mr. Shirley added.

Mr. Jindal did not address CPAC this week, nor did most of the GOP governors on that short list - such as Mrs. Palin, Rick Perry of Texas, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Mr. Jindal was nonetheless the subject of assessments by attendees.

“Unfortunately, Governor Jindal showed he is not ready for prime time,” longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie said. “Presently, it is clear that other than some high-profile talk-show hosts, conservatives have no nationally known, articulate leader or spokesman.”

“Emerging Republican leaders for 2010 and 2012 have something in common,” said GOP campaign strategist Patrick Davis. “They are not from Washington. Look to governors like Jindal, Perry, Barbour, Palin, [Minnesota’s Tim] Pawlenty. They are connected to reality and the struggles of ordinary citizens. Washington still doesn’t get it.”

As for Mr. Jindal’s response to Mr. Obama, Mr. Davis said, “It was not Jindal’s finest moment. He is smart, and this wasn’t the Jindal we know. He looked to be too scripted and almost robotic. He is capable of so much more.”

Mr. Gingrich, who Mr. Shirley said is now the de facto leader of the “loyal opposition,” predicted shortly after the election that 20 to 30 “significant players” within the Republican Party will emerge as 2012 draws closer.

Mr. Moelle, the recent college graduate, said he saw “a role reversal.”

“A few years ago, the Democrats were trying to form their minor leagues, and Obama was their hotshot in the farm system … the Republican Party has so many hotshots out there - Sarah Palin, Charlie Crist, Bobby Jindal,” he said.

• Joseph Curl and Kara Rowland contributed to this report.