"When CPAC asked me to introduce Mitt Romney, I have to confess, I was a little bit surprised," Laura Ingraham said from the lectern at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. "Now, you know, I was thinking, Why me? Why am I introducing Mitt Romney? After all, I think it was just a few nights ago on Super Tuesday that so many of my esteemed colleagues in the media -- anchors and liberal pundits -- were predicting the demise of talk radio, and that old-style conservatism that so many of us stand for."
Ingraham was on a roll, and the crowd was eating it up. "The same political and media types, the same New York Times columnists who are urging all of you in this room to chill out, grow up, calm down, and evolve...are the same types who in 1976 were telling Ronald Reagan that he should step aside for the good of the party. And of course it turned out, in the brilliance and genius of Ronald Reagan, that fighting it all the way to the convention in 1976 was for the good of the party," Ingraham said.
"Of all the people introducing the three remaining candidates for President" she added, "I get to introduce the conservative... Mitt Romney is the conservative's conservative." So there you had it: Rally to Romney; he's the only conservative; he must never drop out of the race.
AS THE ROMNEY FANS streamed out, the McCain fans were already lining up. Last year CPAC was a high-energy, high-conflict affair, with fans of rival candidates enthusiastically butting heads. This year the energy level was much lower, and attendees seemed in no mood for conflict.
The hardcore Romneyites were too dejected to stick around and listen to John McCain's pitch. So yes, McCain was relatively well-received -- there was booing, but it was scattered and usually drowned out by cheers -- but he benefited from a crowd that was self-selected in his favor.
The pattern held throughout the conference. Ron Paul took the stage Thursday afternoon, and the crowd, much smaller than the McCain and Romney crowds, was thick with Paul fans who cheered wildly. Mike Huckabee took the stage on Saturday morning, and the crowd was thick with Huckabee fans who were thrilled to hear him say that he wasn't dropping out.
(Huckabee's crowd was only a little bit bigger than Paul's, by the way; the Huckabee campaign put "I Like Mike" signs on every chair, and in the empty corners of the auditorium they went to waste.)
The exhibit hall was never as crowded as it had been a year ago, and the straw poll results confirmed that there were about 150 fewer respondents than last year.
Romney won the poll with 35 percent to McCain's 34 percent, and even scored a fairly strong second, 34 percent to McCain's 37 percent, among respondents who filled out their questionnaires after the withdrawal announcement. Lest Huckabee fans get their hopes up, it's worth noting that the announcement didn't move his numbers -- Huckabee scored 12 percent both before and after Romney dropped out, and in post-dropout balloting tied with Paul. And 25 percent of respondents claim that they'd vote for someone else if Huckabee was the nominee, versus 20 percent for McCain.
By Saturday "I Miss Mitt" buttons were spotted in the exhibit hall. It seems that rightwing activists can scarcely accept that the Republican Party is poised to nominate John McCain. CPAC this year might have just as well stood for Conservative Political Angst Conference.
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