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.
"If anything, our faith in the power of ideas over candidates is stronger than ever, and we want to see candidates and elected leaders have the same faith in these ideas that we do," Mrs. Frederick said.
Romney and the rest
Some say Mr. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who has fresh momentum but can't match Mr. Romney in money or organization firepower, can go the distance, but the prevailing view is that he represents another short-lived phenomenon in this cycle, with a string of candidates taking the role as Mr. Romney's chief competition.
"Santorum's wins [Tuesday], while painful for Romney today, could actually help him in the long run," pollster Tony Fabrizio said.
"If Santorum and Gingrich keep on passing the baton of the Romney 'alternative' back and forth, neither one is likely to build enough critical mass to mount a full frontal challenge to Romney," Mr. Fabrizio said. "That [is an advantage for] Romney because of his organization, fundraising, cash on hand and remaining calendar."
Mr. Fabrizio conducts the annual CPAC presidential preference straw poll sponsored by The Washington Times. The poll, to be released Saturday, could give a window into the depth of support on the right for the top contenders. In addition, The Times and Mr. Fabrizio this year will release a poll surveying conservative views nationally on the race and the key issues of the campaign.
Interviews with CPAC attendees this year reflect the same ambivalence GOP voters have shown in the primaries and caucuses to date.
Local tea party leader Steve Salvi, founder of Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC, is excited by Mr. Santorum, particularly because of his steady opposition to any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"Watch Santorum," Mr. Salvi said. "If not for Gingrich's deep-pocket benefactors, this would have been a Romney-Santorum race for the past two months. Although the poll numbers don't reflect it yet, I wouldn't be surprised if Santorum moves up if he can financially stay in the race."
Mr. Fabrizio remains skeptical. "I am sure Santorum is very popular with CPAC conservatives. So is Gingrich and probably Romney," he said. "They can like all three and still not vote for two of them."
"The question comes down to this for both Santorum and Gingrich: Who shows up? Are they activists that want so badly to beat Obama that they are willing to accept Romney as the most electable, or are they willing to fall on their swords for someone they perceive to be more conservative than Romney?"
Mrs. Frederick has another explanation. "When you see a backlash against a particular candidate, or resistance to pronouncements of who is up or who is down, it is because we are determined not to let others decide this race for us," she said.
"Ninety percent of the nation hasn't had the chance to actually vote in the presidential primary, and we'll be fit to be tied if we let talking heads and establishment figures tell us the race is over when the vast majority of conservatives have not had an opportunity to even voice their opinion."
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