OKLAHOMA CITY -- Delivering his post mortem for the 2006 mid-term elections, Sen. Tom Coburn told delegates at Saturday's Oklahoma Republican Convention that the voters lost confidence in Republican integrity, not Republican ideas:
"If Republicans will stand on ideas and have courage to back up those ideas, the courage to challenge the status quo, then the Republican Party both in Oklahoma and this country will be very successful in the future."
As Coburn took a breath, a woman in the crowd cried out, "Tom for President!" It was the biggest applause line of the day.
Oklahoma boasts the most conservative Senate delegation in the nation -- both Coburn and his senior colleague Jim Inhofe have a perfect score from the American Conservative Union -- and every county went red in 2004.
Most of the convention's 900 delegates are waiting to find a candidate like Coburn to back in a bid for the White House -- someone with integrity who can confidently articulate conservative ideas. None of the candidates already in the race has captured their hearts.
Two non-candidates topped a straw poll conducted by the Oklahoma Republican Assembly. Fred Thompson led with 38%; Newt Gingrich finished a distant second with 15%. Other candidates were in the single digits, led by Rudy Giuliani at 9%.
Thompson's straight-shooting radio commentaries -- he filled in recently for Tulsa native Paul Harvey -- bring back happy memories of Ronald Reagan's daily broadcasts which served as a prelude to his 1980 triumph. On social, economic, and foreign policy issues, Thompson lines up with these conservative grassroots activists, who like the fact that they wouldn't have to apologize for his substance or his style.
Delegates gave second-choice Gingrich high marks as an idea man, but they always coupled his name with the word "baggage."
Thompson's deliberate pace isn't a problem for his supporters here, who are accustomed to waiting patiently for their dream candidate to come along. In the 2004 Senate race, big-money donors and elected officials made early commitments to Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. But conservative foot-soldiers kept their powder dry, hoping Coburn would enter the race, and fell in behind him when he did.
Mitt Romney passed on his chance to win over Oklahoma delegates. Months ago he had committed to be the keynote speaker, but 10 days before the convention he backed out, citing a schedule conflict. Instead, Romney spent Saturday making the rounds of several GOP county conventions in South Carolina.
Romney's cancellation came a day after the death of a bill that would have leapfrogged Oklahoma ahead of South Carolina and made the Sooner State primary the second in the nation, one week after New Hampshire.
Even without the move, Oklahoma's February 5 primary is among the earliest, offering, with Arkansas, Missouri, and Alabama, a virtual south-central regional primary with as many delegates at stake as California but much cheaper ad rates.
None of the presidential campaigns had an official presence at Saturday's convention. A Rudy Giuliani table was manned by three young men from the University of Oklahoma. Some anonymous supporter of John McCain set out a few bumper stickers, and an energetic Mike Huckabee fan put a photocopied issues paper on every seat in the hall.
At one booth, a male, middle-aged admirer of the Secretary of State urged passers-by to "Think Condi!" A sign behind him advised, "Rice Wants It--But in Draft Form."
Of the candidates already in the race, Giuliani had the most support among delegates, even though his views clash with the platform they unanimously adopted.
Some support Giuliani more out of resignation than enthusiasm. Only Rudy can beat Hillary, they say. They fear that the same blight that makes the Northeast politically inhospitable to social conservatives has spread to key swing states in the Midwest and the Sun Belt.
Without a presidential candidate there to rally the troops on Saturday, the job fell to Coburn and Inhofe, who announced he will seek a third full Senate term next year. He isn't counting on coattails from the presidential nominee but is already working to energize his core voters and enlist them as volunteers and donors.
Environmentalist groups have targeted Inhofe for his vocal skepticism about man-made global warming. Not intimidated in the least, Inhofe fired up the crowd with video clips of his clashes with CNN's Miles O'Brien -- Inhofe called him "the Rush Limbaugh of the liberals" -- and Sen. Barbara Boxer, his successor as chairman of the Senate Environment Committee.
No Democratic challenger to Inhofe has emerged. Gov. Brad Henry, re-elected in a landslide last fall, says he isn't interested. The most serious threat to Inhofe could come from a public official wealthy enough to self-finance -- someone like Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor, the wife of Vanguard Car Rental CEO Bill Lobeck, or Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson, who also serves as chairman of the Oklahoma City school board.
The state isn't a lock for the GOP, which suffered a near-shutout in statewide races last fall, even as the party consolidated its 2004 takeover of the State House and fought to a draw in the State Senate for the first time since statehood.
But Jim Inhofe is the kind of outspoken, uncompromising politician that Oklahoma Republicans love to follow into battle. Inhofe will give these red state activists plenty of the red meat they crave, however unappetizing the top of the ticket may be.
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