WASHINGTON -- "Hey," a young man shouted to his friends in the hotel lobby. "This guy doesn't know who won the straw poll!" He was referring to the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the nation's largest gathering of conservative activists. The crowd told "this guy" -- your humble servant -- that the winner was Ron Paul.
It wasn't even close. Paul, a Republican now in his 11th term in the House, took 31 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had won the straw poll for the last three years, came in second. Nobody else broke into the double digits, with Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate, running a distant third at 7 percent.
Ron Paul has bested his more famous GOP rivals in unscientific surveys before. His ardent supporters were numerous enough to dominate Internet polls and raise millions of dollars but too thin on the ground to deliver any primaries or caucuses during the 2008 Republican nomination fight. With the exception of Romney, the campaign teams for the other candidates listed on the CPAC ballot were either nonexistent or in their infancy.
But straw polls are a legitimate test of organizational strength and grassroots enthusiasm. Even in 2008, Paul had the latter in spades. But Paul-affiliated organizations like the Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty are starting to come into their own, becoming savvier and more sophisticated. Paulites blended more naturally into their CPAC surroundings than during the previous two years. And the movement is even losing its cult of personality aspect, as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, Judge Andrew Napolitano, and bestselling author Thomas Woods become significant figures alongside Paul.
Glenn Beck, one of the country's most popular television commentators and another CPAC star, has moved substantially in Paul's direction on domestic policy and has inched a bit closer on foreign affairs. This is true of the conservative movement as a whole. The Mount Vernon Statement signed last week by leaders of perfectly mainstream conservative organizations was a thoroughly constitutionalist document. Every Republican in the House has signed onto Paul's bill to audit the Federal Reserve, including the entire leadership team.
Even back in the 1990s, the previous modern heyday of the anti-statist right, conservatives tended to pinpoint the 1960s and the Great Society as where the country went off track. The more radical among them identified the 1930s and the New Deal. Under the influence of Beck, many Tea Party activists say the country went to hell in a handcart under Woodrow Wilson. Asked about the platform of her congressional candidate, the campaign team member of one Alabama Republican at CPAC replied simply, "He's running on the Constitution."
Foreign policy remains a huge dividing line. Most self-described conservatives believe not only that the Iraq war was just, but that it was a success (thanks mostly to the surge). A Campaign for Liberty panel discussion at CPAC questioned not only the Iraq adventure but the entire concept of the war on terror. But foreign policy has clearly taken a backseat to the economy and the growth of government. And Republicans have proved more willing to criticize military interventions now that there is a Democratic commander-in-chief.
The antagonism between conservatives who identify with Paul and the rest of the mainstream movement still remains, however. Many people at CPAC booed Paul when the straw poll results were announced. At the Paulian events, contemporary Republican leaders aren't referred to any more glowingly than Barack Obama.
Already this year, two candidates for statewide office have far exceeded expectations running as representatives of the movement Paul started. One is Ron Paul's own son, Rand Paul, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Kentucky. The other is Debra Medina, who is running in a contentious GOP gubernatorial primary in Texas.
The younger Paul now leads his main primary opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, in public polls by margins as high as 19 percentage points. Medina has seen her numbers zoom from the low single digits to as high as 24 percent -- enough to potentially force Texas Gov. Rick Perry into a runoff and perhaps overtake Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for second place. Both candidacies are fueled by Paulities and the broader Tea Party movement.
But there are differences in their approaches. Rand Paul emphasizes tax cuts, balanced budgets, and his opposition to future bailouts rather than the war in Iraq. He politely refrains from criticizing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, even though McConnell is supporting Grayson. "I believe in the fusion of bringing people together," Rand Paul told TAS. "As Republicans we should be focusing on our agreements, not our differences."
Paul's campaign manager, David Adams, buys into Grover Norquist's argument that American politics is divided between a "Leave Us Alone Coalition" on the right and a "Takings Coalition" on the left. And they are quick to distance themselves from the 9/11 truthers and other revisionists who have sometimes gravitated toward Paulite circles. "We are not to blame for people attacking us," the younger Paul told a Kentucky television station.
Debra Medina was not willing to sound so certain a trumpet. In Feb. 11 radio interview, Glenn Beck asked her about accusations that she was a 9/11 truther. She did not embrace the label, but neither did she clearly disavow the views associated with it. "Do you believe the government was in any way involved in the bringing down of the World Trade Centers on 9/11?" Beck asked.
"I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard," Medina replied. "There are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there, so I have not taken a position on that." Beck followed up by asking if there were any truthers on Medina's staff. She answered, "I'm certainly not into mind control or thought policing people. We've got a very diverse team in this state and that's because Texans are standing shoulder to shoulder to support and defend the Constitution." Medina subsequently issued a statement clarifying that she was not a 9/11 truther, but she sure seemed unwilling to alienate such people with her initial statements.
Medina's primary is in early March, Rand Paul's is in May. It remains to be seen how both candidates will do when they face the voters. But when it comes to mainstreaming the ideas that brought Ron Paul his surprise CPAC victory, we don't have to wait that long to determine which is a more promising strategy.