Sen. John McCain is the only major Republican presidential candidate who will not address the nation’s premier gathering of conservatives this year.
Sponsors of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which begins today in Washington and brings together thousands of conservative leaders and grass-roots activists, say the Arizona Republican has “dissed” organizers by attempting to schedule a private reception for attendees after rejecting invitations to speak at the event.
“It was a classical McCain move, dissing us by going behind our backs,” said William J. Lauderback, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union.
Convening through Saturday at a sold-out Omni Shoreham Hotel, the 34th annual CPAC will feature personal appearances and nationally televised speeches by every Republican presidential hopeful except Mr. McCain, said David A. Keene, chairman of the ACU, which, along with Young America’s Foundation and Human Events, is a principal sponsor of CPAC.
Conservative activists have speculated that Mr. McCain did not want to be seen on television “pandering” to Republican “right-wingers” but wanted to court those same activists at a reception in the same hotel.
“He turned down repeated CPAC offers to speak but then tried to get around us by having his office call the hotel to rent a room for a reception for CPAC attendees — without first seeking approval of CPAC organizers,” said Mr. Lauderback.
By contrast, he said, other Republican presidential aspirants have called ACU to seek permission to hold receptions at the hotel during CPAC. Each of those candidates — including Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — “called us a long time ago to arrange for a hospitality reception he will give for CPAC attendees,” Mr. Lauderback said.
“We would have still allowed McCain to do something at CPAC, but by the time his folks approached the hotel, everything was in concrete and there was no facility available for what he wanted,” Mr. Keene said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible contender who is considered his party’s one-man think tank, and Vice President Dick Cheney, still a crowd favorite for the conservative faithful, will also address the conference.
When an attempt was made to ask why Mr. McCain declined to address CPAC, top campaign advisers John Weaver and Terry Nelson were said to be “unreachable.”
But a spokesman for Mr. McCain — who is running an average of 13 percentage points behind former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the latest national polls — said the candidate’s conservative credentials are well-known.
“The senator has run, been elected and served as a conservative and looks forward to talking about his conservative record throughout the course of this campaign,” said Brian Jones, communications director for the McCain campaign.
CPAC has been considered a key event for conservative candidates since the Reagan era.
“Reagan attended every CPAC from the first one in 1974 — when he gave his famous ‘City Upon a Hill’ speech — until his last year in office in 1988,” said Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican activist and Reagan historian. “The exceptions were 1976 and 1980, when he was campaigning in New Hampshire for the GOP nomination.”
Mr. Shirley recalled that at “the very first CPAC, Reagan brought as his guest a young, severely wounded Navy pilot who had been a POW in Hanoi: John McCain III.”
Organizers say they expect more than 5,000 people — including busloads of college students from across the country — at what is being billed as the largest CPAC ever. This year’s conference features 36 panel discussions (twice the number as last year) in two ballrooms over three days, and more than 40 private receptions held by candidates and advocacy groups.
CPAC attendees “are the people who knock on doors for candidates they support and make up the core of the ground troops on whom any candidate has to rely,” Mr. Keene said. “By simply dismissing them, as Senator McCain has done, he is telling them more about himself than perhaps he wants them to know.”
Mr. McCain’s conservative supporters, from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to veteran conservative consultants such as Becky Donatelli, have told friends that they tried hard to get the senator to accept the invitation to speak at CPAC.
“It makes no sense,” Mr. Lauderback said. “McCain alienates the left by calling for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision … but he then alienates the right by dissing their organizations — refusing to speak at the recent National Review conference, the House Republican Study Committee retreat and now CPAC.”
Mr. Shirley said skipping CPAC is a mistake for any Republican candidate.
“Any GOP politician who doesn’t understand this and the importance of this conference doesn’t understand conservatism,” he said.
Some candidates who originally hesitated about attending CPAC, including Mr. Giuliani, changed their minds. He is scheduled to be introduced by commentator George F. Will for a noon speech on Friday.
Nevertheless, Mr. Keene said he thought Mr. McCain would have been warmly welcomed at CPAC.
“Most conservatives disagree with his positions on a number of issues like campaign-finance reform, gun-show loopholes, taxes and global warming,” said Mr. Keene. “But many like his stand on earmarks and his support of President Bush on Iraq and almost all respect the sacrifices he made for his country during the Vietnam era.”