Sunday, March 4, 2007

Michael S. Steele and Newt Gingrich were the biggest stars according to activists who attended the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pulled off CPAC’s biggest coup, former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III was the biggest surprise, and Ann Coulter was the biggest loser.

Mr. Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor — rejected last fall by the Bush White House for chairmanship of the Republican National Committee (RNC) — was mobbed by hundreds of attendees wanting their picture taken with him on the dais after he served as master of ceremonies at the Thursday banquet featuring Vice President Dick Cheney and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton.

“He acknowledged the November shellacking that he and the rest of the GOP took, but was upbeat and essentially said, ‘Hey, I’m an African-American Roman Catholic Republican from Maryland, so overcoming odds is nothing new to me,’ ” said Cleta Mitchell, a Washington lawyer and board member of the American Conservative Union (ACU). “He was funny, smart, warm, and representative of all we stand for.”

This year’s CPAC was also a boon for Mr. Gingrich, as the former House speaker acknowledged after his Saturday speech that closed the conference.

“I got more bang for my buck than the other [2008 presidential hopefuls],” a smiling Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times after he marched from the back of the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, amid stirring music nearly drowned out by applause and cheers.

Mr. Gingrich was the only top-tier potential contender for the Republican nomination who hadn’t formed a presidential exploratory committee or bought any CPAC banquet tables for supporters. Yet in the largest presidential preference straw poll in the conference’s history, he placed fourth (14 percent) — ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain (12 percent), who rejected an invitation to address the event.

Mr. Giuliani made his decision to accept CPAC’s speaking invitation four days before the conference, yet managed to place second (17 percent) in the straw poll behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (21 percent), who had invested heavily in pre-event organization.

Perhaps most importantly, the conference poll conducted by the Fabrizio-McLaughlin firm allowed attendees to indicate their second preferences. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Giuliani each got 16 percent of the second-choice votes, so that when first- and second-place were combined, Mr. Giuliani was on top (at 33 percent), with Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich tied for second at 30 percent each.

“I think Giuliani is doing much better among conservative audiences than anybody could have imagined six months ago,” said Michael Toner, a Federal Election Commission member appointed by President Bush.

Following Mr. Giuliani’s Friday speech, several previously skeptical conservatives stopped a reporter to express their admiration for how thoughtful Mr. Giuliani appeared and to say they liked the way he conveyed a sense of leadership.

However, when questioned Saturday night after both Mr. Gilmore’s and Mr. Gingrich’s speeches, more CPAC attendees remembered the former Virginia governor’s address and said the Virginian — a former RNC chairman who headed the Gilmore Commission to assess terrorism threats — got all the nuances right on foreign policy, while also praising Mr. Gingrich’s emphasis on basic Republican themes of individual freedom.

“Newt showed he is the strongest spokesperson for today’s conservatives,” said Tom Edmonds, a veteran campaign strategist and chief executive officer of the Edmonds Hackney media-consulting firm.

Mr. Steele, who lost his 2006 Senate bid in a bad year for Republicans, got high marks from CPAC attendees for his easygoing humor as master of ceremonies at the gala banquet on opening night.

“Michael Steele showed himself clearly to be a significant figure in the future of the conservative movement,” said Joe Morris, a Chicago lawyer and ACU board member who noted that Mr. Steele, who now heads GOPAC, has been nominated for the ACU board, “a tribute to his campaign last year.”

Several conference attendees said they were shocked by an apparently offhand remark Miss Coulter made during her standing-room-only speech Friday.

Asked to comment on Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, Miss Coulter said, “It turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I’m kind of at an impasse — I can’t really talk about Edwards.”

Mrs. Mitchell said that Miss Coulter — a best-selling author, TV commentator and a frequent speaker at campus conservative events who also drew criticism for using an anti-Arab epithet in her 2006 CPAC speech — has become an “embarrassing … caricature” who is hurting the movement.

“No question — we shouldn’t give Coulter a serious platform when she is seriously out of line,” said Mrs. Mitchell, an Oklahoma native whose clients include many top Republican candidates. “She is the Howard Stern of so-called conservative commentators, and we should take her off the list in my view.”

Former Republican congressional staffer Gil Macklin agreed.

“Every time Ann Coulter opens her mouth, taste takes a holiday,” Mr. Macklin said. “No blow is too low for Coulter to throw.”

Pollster Tony Fabrizio took an unusual turn in the spotlight as the conference concluded Saturday evening, eliciting sometimes deafening boos from the packed ballroom every time he mentioned a poll finding associated with Mr. McCain. The Arizona senator snubbed CPAC, and a McCain spokesman called the annual gathering a bunch of Washington insiders even though the poll showed that 85 percent of its 4,800 registered attendees came from 47 states outside of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

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