WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Senator John McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee as Mitt Romney withdrew from the presidential race yesterday, but you wouldn't have been able to guess that from the reaction of the CPAC crowds.
The line for Romney's speech was already snaking around the corner an hour and a half before it began. Minutes before he started speaking, political insiders and media types began buzzing about his imminent departure from the race and I caught wind of this.
With some inkling of what was to come, I scanned the faces in the crowd for reactions. I saw an engaged audience hanging on the former governor's every word, clapping often and loudly. I fidgeted through his talk about America's problems. And when he said, "Even though we face an uphill fight, I know that many in this room are fully behind my campaign. You are with me all the way to the convention," I thought maybe the media had got this one wrong. Maybe Romney would battle it out all the way to the convention.
As he shared with the crowd how he hated to lose, you could feel the collective sucking in of air as everyone started to put things together. When Romney reached the apex of his speech, announcing that he "must stand aside for his party and his country," a bit of bedlam broke loose in the ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
The crowd screamed "No!" and "Fight on!" These admirers hoped that, despite Romney obviously having thought this through, they could change his mind. The former governor and business executive soldiered on, announcing that he was suspending his campaign. Some audience members wept. Others were visibly upset.
Pouring out of the ballroom, many people thought his overtures to Reagan's first failed attempt at the Republican nomination pointed to a second try for Romney. "This isn't the last you've seen of Mitt Romney," one attendee said, reminding his friends that, save for the current president, the past few Republican nominees didn't get the nod on their first run.
WHEN I RETURNED to the hotel after lunch, there was large contingent of McCain supporters standing near the front door of the hotel. The sheer number reminded me of the Romney crowd last year. I wondered if the McCain supporters had somehow seized former Romney supporters after his concession speech and stuffed them into McCain T-shirts. They were opposed by a group of people with a makeshift sign that read "Republicans Against McCain."
As Senator Tom Coburn and former senator and would-be-presidential-candidiate-if-it-weren't-for-that-Macaca-incident George Allen introduced McCain, the room was tense. Never a favorite of the conservative faithful, McCain had skipped out on CPAC last year to avoid the heckling.
Not this time. McCain entered the room to loud booing, which was eventually drowned out by supporters.
The cheers and jeers finally died down and McCain addressed last year's absence. "I was merely pre-occupied with the business of trying to escape the distinction of pre-season frontrunner for the Republican nomination, which, I'm sure some of you observed, I managed to do in fairly short order," he joked.
As McCain laid out his conservative credentials, including attending CPAC as Reagan's guest, the crowd held its ire. Several people smirked when the Arizona senator owned up to his mistakes.
Then McCain let loose the I-word. Remember that pesky little immigration bill last summer? Apparently everyone at CPAC did. "On the issue of immigration..." he began, and in came more boos. Watching the reaction in the ballroom, a broad smile crossed his face.
McCain didn't appear to win them over with his speech, exactly. And that smile couldn't have helped assuage the fears of his detractors. But we've learned by now what a mistake it is to write the man off.
Granted, he's never likely to be the darling of conservatives. But with the Democratic race likely to still be undecided for quite some time, he'll have plenty of time to war with his critics.