What made this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference different from previous ones, besides the record 10,000 registrants claimed by organizers, was the existence of the “tea party” phenomenon.
It gave Republicans the cover to castigate not just the Democrats but their own party’s excesses on tax-and-spend issues and on expanding federal government power.
It was hard to find many Republicans, even county or state officials, who attended the 37th annual conference who didn’t also identify themselves as tea-party activists or members of the tea-party movement.
“It’s the cover they get from tea party that is why there’s this feeling of a kind of liberation - part of the energy you feel here this time,” a county GOP official and regular CPAC attendee said privately. “But I can’t say that publicly because the tea party people are so sensitive to anything a Republican says.”
Veterans of CPAC agreed that there was a special energy this time that made them confident about the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
“It was reassuring to see thousands of people gather in one place saying what people in my community have been saying about too much spending and so much debt and doubt the country can recover if it goes on,” said Virginia business owner and Republican activist James Parmelee. “It was liberating - like seeing athletes in your sport, but from all over, gather in an Olympic Village.”
The common message from high-profile Republicans to their shock troops in the conservative movement’s largest conference was to stay focused on the November congressional and gubernatorial elections and not even think about the 2012 presidential race. Failure to direct energy full time to getting out the vote this year, they warned, could lead to disappointing results in elections in which pollsters and analysts in both parties expect Republicans to make major gains.
That advice to attendees was repeated from morning until evening over three days by every big name in the Republican Party, from House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
For many at the conference, which concluded on Saturday, it was just as well not to dwell on 2012. Most of the 2,395 attendees who cast ballots in a straw poll taken by CPAC organizers said there are no standouts in the GOP field right now.
Asked whether they were satisfied with the 2012 field or wished the Republican Party had a better selection of potential presidential nominees to offer, 53 percent said they were not satisfied.
The biggest vote getter - 31 percent - on the straw poll ballot for 2012 was Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination in 2008. But the libertarian-minded conservative’s skepticism about the Iraq war and such stances as eliminating the Federal Reserve system and reverting to the gold standard rubs many Republicans as wrong or quixotic.
The party’s biggest current star, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, did not attend CPAC and got the nod from a mere 7 percent in the straw vote.