WASHINGTON -- President Bush may be a lame duck to most Americans, and he may have anemic poll numbers, but at the Conservative Political Action Conference he was greeted as if he were Eli Manning floating along the New York Giants' victory parade.
With the president scheduled to speak just after 7 in the morning on Friday, mostly young conservative activists began waiting in the middle of the night, forming a line that snaked down the hallways and had already swamped the lobby of the Omni Shoreham hotel while it was still dark.
Though many in the crowd were still bleary-eyed by the time Bush took the stage, they erupted in a monstrous ovation, with sustained chants of "Four More Years!" President Bush seemed almost surprised by the reception, reacting with a giddy laughter that set the lighthearted tone of his speech.
At one point, while discussing drug addiction, President Bush said, "Sometimes all it takes is the help of a loving soul -- somebody who puts their arm around a troubled person and says, I love you, can I help you?"
A woman in the audience shouted, "I love you W!" like a smitten fan of Johnny Fontane at Connie Corleone's wedding in The Godfather.
As the audience laughed and cheered, Bush quipped, "My soul is not that troubled, but thank you," prompting more laughter and another round of sustained applause.
BUSH DIDN'T HESITATE to toss a few slabs of thick red meat into the audience when talking about liberal opponents who "tend to be suspicious of America's exercise of global leadership -- unless, of course, we get a permission slip from international organizations."
"Over the past seven years, we have engaged this opposition with a clear and consistent philosophy," he boasted. "We didn't take polls to decide what to say. We didn't seek the advice of editorial pages to decide what to think. And we darn sure didn't seek the approval of groups like Code Pink and MoveOn.org before deciding what to do."
At a time when many on the right are questioning whether his administration has greatly weakened the movement, the speech represented Bush's attempt to make the case that his presidency advanced conservative principles .
Even former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and onetime Bush defender Peggy Noonan declared last month that "George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues."
But as Bush argued it, he said that he had signed the largest tax cuts in history, routed terrorists, toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, promoted the culture of life through vetoes of stem cell research funding expansion, and appointed John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Bush was confident that historians would look back on his presidency more favorably than the pundits and "so-called experts" of our time. "I'm not going to be around to see the final history written on my administration," he reflected. "The truth is that history's verdict takes time to reveal itself."
HE NOTED THAT President Reagan was called an "amiable dunce" and "warmonger" in his own time, but was vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. "A lot of people who spent the 1980s criticizing President Reagan now tell us they were with him all along," he remarked.
As President Bush concluded, one could see the early signs that he is ready to go to bat for John McCain once he sews up the Republican nomination.
"We've had good debates and soon we'll have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond," Bush said. "Listen, the stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance. So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory, and keep the White House in 2008."
Although many conservatives have serious gripes with the administration, President Bush's reception at CPAC suggests that if strategically deployed, he could be a major asset for McCain as he attempts to build bridges to conservatives.
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