- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Newt Gingrich received a hero’s welcome at the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday, but it was Tom DeLay who gave the thousands of activists their marching orders: Unite conservative interest groups into a machine that can overpower the unity of their liberal counterparts.

Mr. Gingrich, who won’t decide whether he will run for president until after September, tied former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for second place in the conference’s combined first- and second-choice straw poll with 30 percent each, trailing only former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who won with a combined 34 percent.

“We will not defeat the Clinton machine by being negative,” Mr. Gingrich said, referring to Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. “We will defeat the Clinton machine by offering better solutions based on better values with a deeper reach into the American people’s lives and psyche.”

The former House speaker challenged all of the candidates to commit to a new way of conducting the last nine weeks of the presidential campaign: Forgo attack ads and meet once a week for 90-minute in-depth discussions, “no Mickey Mouse,” with just a timekeeper, no moderator and no panel of questioners.

In the straw poll of 1,705 CPAC attendees who voted, Mr. Romney was the top choice of 21 percent, followed by Mr. Giuliani at 17 percent, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas at 15 percent, then Mr. Gingrich at 14 percent and Sen. John McCain of Arizona at 12 percent.

But combined with second-choice ballots, Mr. Giuliani vaulted to the top — followed by Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Brownback was fourth, Mr. McCain fifth, and Rep. Tom Tancredo sixth with 9 percent.

The combined choice is the most important yardstick because it measures depth of support, said J. William Lauderback, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union, the conference’s chief sponsor.

“The Romney [second choice] number was markedly shallow at 9 percent,” he said.

Mr. McCain was the only major candidate not to attend CPAC. He told Mort Kondracke of the Fox News Channel he didn’t need to attend because CPAC was mostly Washington insiders.

Conference organizers said yesterday that the 5,200 people who registered for CPAC, held at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Northwest, came from 49 states, and just 15 percent were from Maryland, Virginia and the District.

“Newt Gingrich is probably the only rock star in the conservative world right now,” Georgia Republican activist Phil Kent said. “You saw the energy when he entered the ballroom. I didn’t see that for any of the others.”

Mr. DeLay, the former House majority leader, who left Congress under the cloud of an indictment in Texas, criticized CPAC and other conservative gatherings for never offering plans of action to defeat the left. He said he is forming a Coalition for a Conservative Majority that would unite the various conservative interest groups into a single message for the conservative cause.

“When I left Congress, I had two things to do: support the conservative cause and defend Israel,” he said.

Mr. DeLay said conservatives must overcome their independent streak and match liberal groups’ willingness to take up each other’s goals.

“You’ll get abortionists working on labor policy. You’ll get unions working for abortionists,” he said of the liberal machine. “We need to understand that all of these conservative groups out there need to come together and work together to maximize our resources.”

But some conservatives are not yet ready to forgive Mr. DeLay for saying, during the spending spree after Hurricane Katrina, that the money should be added to the deficit because Republicans had pared the budget down so well already.

“As a conservative activist, I’m still hoping he is going to retract his comments that there is not any more fat in the federal budget,” said George Primbs, 44, a database marketing manager from Woodbridge, who was attending his 20th CPAC.

Speaking earlier in the day, former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III called himself “the real conservative” in the race. He cited Mr. Romney’s admission he voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Mr. Giuliani’s acknowledged vote for Democrat Mario Cuomo for New York governor in 1994 as evidence the others fall short.

“What are we expected to do?” Mr. Gilmore asked. “There is not a person in this room who was so confused in those days they would have voted for Paul Tsongas and Mario Cuomo.”

He also attacked Mr. McCain, saying he fits the label “maverick” more than “conservative” for having opposed President Bush’s tax cuts and supporting “amnesty” for illegal aliens.

“Gilmore had the best message, and he delivered it beautifully,” said Donald J. Devine, who headed President Reagan’s Office of Personnel Management.

The straw poll also made it clear that Mr. Bush is mostly irrelevant to the conservative movement. In the poll, 79 percent described themselves as a “Ronald Reagan Republican,” but just 3 percent said they were a “George W. Bush Republican.”

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