Worried conservatives descend on Washington’s CPAC

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Bound by a common desire to deny President Obama a second term, restive activists gathering Thursday for the 39th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington find themselves lacking a clear champion in the suddenly scrambled Republican race to choose an alternative.

CPAC attendees — expected to number more than 6,000 from across the country — pride themselves on maintaining varying degrees of independence from the GOP. The three-day gathering kicks off two days after primaries and caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri raised doubts once again among conservative voters about presumed GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.

Rick Santorum, a social conservative and the big winner in Tuesday’s vote, “has energized his supporters and the family-issue conservatives coming to CPAC,” said Floyd Brown, president of the Western Center for Journalism, a conservative watchdog group, who works with conservative and tea party activists across the country.

“His victories may be a surprise to the GOP elite in Washington, D.C., but conservatives and tea party activists outside the Beltway are not ready to accept the designated Beltway choice, Mitt Romney,” Mr. Brown said.

Added Donald J. Devine, a conservative author and former Reagan administration official, “The mood of conservatives is disappointment that their candidates for president are so weak. They are probably confident they’ll win the White House even with these candidates, although I am not confident.

“But they are most worried about Romney, as Tuesday night’s results show,” he said.

Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are scheduled to make their pitches to the CPAC audience Friday. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the fourth major candidate in the GOP nomination battle, will be represented by his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The conference also will hear from such rising conservative stars as Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II; Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican; and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who will close out the conference Saturday afternoon.

Seeking the next Reagan

Conservatives gathering for the conference are becoming more explicit than ever before about their disappointment with the movement’s progress in the years since Ronald Reagan, the man many cite as their ideal of a conservative leader. They have seen the movement take a step back in the past two administrations.

“Conservatives really feel like this is ‘our’ time, that it’s up to us to renew and redefine the party,” said Amy Noone Frederick, president of the conservative seniors advocacy group 60 Plus. “We need to reboot from the last six years of national leadership, which has been a total disaster for both the party and the nation.

“We were crushed by the second term of George W. Bush, who initiated [the Troubled Asset Relief Program] and instigated government intervention that led to the bailouts,” she said. “And then we played good soldiers for John McCain when he got the nomination, only to see him open the door for Obama with a campaign that did not articulate a coherent philosophy.”

Mr. Romney tried to shrug off the disappointing results from Tuesday, saying he does not have a problem with the party’s right wing.

“I don’t think the conservative base changes its mind day to day,” the former Massachusetts governor told reporters. “The places where I campaigned actively, we got actually, in some respects, record support from the conservative base.”

Year after year at these meetings, CPAC attendees have grumbled about the failure of some of the elected Republican officials who profess conservative ideals to adhere to them once in power. Those activists, who keep coming and keep bringing recruits, say they aren’t giving up on finding politicians whose deeds will more closely resemble their words.

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About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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