- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

If there were a correlation between crowd-pleasing and winning the presidency, then the 2012 Republican presidential nominee would be either former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Both men were standing-room-only attractions at the 36th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which concluded Saturday. Among political officeholders, the two men won the longest, most-sustained applause, the biggest appreciative hoots and hollers, and the most standing ovations. And both men did the same last year.

But the biggest star was talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who, according to conference organizers, was received like no other speaker in those 36 years, even Ronald Reagan. Almost 2,000 people crammed into the main ballroom and hundreds of others watched on big-screen TVs set up in two overflow rooms.

With his speech being broadcast live by C-SPAN, CNN and Fox News as a major news event, Mr. Limbaugh quipped: “Ladies and gentleman, this is my first-ever address to the nation.”

He took off the gloves, saying it’s not unpatriotic to want President Obama to fail because, he said, what the Democratic president is trying to do will make America fail. Democrats are running an attack ad that portrays Mr. Limbaugh as the real Republican leader, pulling the strings and calling the shots, so Mr. Limbaugh played on that idea by going after Republican lawmakers as well.

Referring to the Republican leaders in the Senate and House, he said, “Obama is obviously more frightened of me than he is [of] Mitch McConnell. He’s more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn’t say much about the party.”

Besides Mr. Limbaugh, according to many attendees, acerbic author-pundit Ann Coulter and National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre raised the Omni Shoreham roof higher, but if they plan to switch to political careers, they neglected to tell their cheering CPAC fans.

“Romney was fantastic,” said Republican elections-law lawyer Cleta Mitchell.

“He was serious on conservative principles and demonstrated his depth on economic issues. Plus his best line was: ‘I have news for Eric Holder: America is not a nation of cowards,’ ” she said, referring to the attorney general’s recent characterization of what he considers America’s skittishness about discussing issues of race.

Mr. Romney also scored his third straight victory in the CPAC straw poll on who should be the next Republican presidential nominee, drawing 20 percent of the 1,757 conventioneers who voted. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was second at 14 percent, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 13 percent each. Mr. Gingrich was fifth with 10 percent, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 7 percent. No other candidate in the open poll topped 5 percent, and 9 percent were undecided.

There were others who generated enthusiasm on the CPAC stage this year, amid attendance at the three-day event that had jumped to nearly 9,000 from last year’s 6,000. Although not as well-known, some may have that intangible something extra that makes national political success possible.

Exhibiting a podium style of a serious-minded young nephew with a sense of humor, but who is the fully focused manager of the family business, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota accused Democrats of being pro-jobs but anti-business.

“That’s like being pro-egg but anti-chicken,” Mr. Pawlenty said, getting a roar of approving laughter. He also brought the house down with a crack about the extreme affection MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews shows for President Obama.

“The only thing growing faster than the federal budget deficit is Chris Matthews’ man-crush on President Obama,” Mr. Pawlenty said.

Other veteran CPAC activists were equally enthusiastic about the self-deprecating Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister.

The former Arkansas governor got the ballroom crowd rocking with conservative slogans and rolling with laughter.

Mr. Huckabee told the audience that he knew MSNBC finally had gotten religion when Mr. Jindal was about to begin his response to Mr. Obama’s speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress. Mr. Matthews, not realizing his microphone was on, exclaimed, “Oh, God!” Mr. Huckabee then said the network’s new name should be “MSBS.”

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