Mitt Romney came to the Conservative Political Action Conference in desperate need of good news. The exploratory phase of his candidacy was launched amid much fanfare in January, but last month his poll numbers sagged as his past liberal stances on a number of issues came to light and conservatives began to question whether his conversion was genuine or a matter of political expediency.
His shifting positions came under fire at CPAC, as one man calling himself “Flip Romney” dressed up in a dolphin suit wearing a T-shirt that identified Romney as “Another Massachusetts Flip Flopper.” The dolphin man handed out flyers detailing Romney’s reversals on a number of issues, while others literally distributed Romney flip-flops.
Despite the criticisms, Romney gave an energetic speech and received a rousing reception from the audience. He pitched himself as the candidate who was an across the board conservative and as a successful manager who can get things done. In a nice touch, Romney brought his wife Ann up to speak about Mitt the family man, which no doubt was aimed at drawing a contrast between himself and Giuliani and John McCain, who’ve been married a combined five times.
In the end, Romney was the first choice of voters in the CPAC straw poll, with 21 percent of the vote, compared to 17 percent for Giuliani, 15 percent for Sam Brownback, 14 percent for Newt Gingrich, and 12 percent for McCain.
The poll results are worth putting in context. The Romney campaign brought in an estimated 225 student volunteers to attend CPAC, paid their registration fees, and in some cases for their transportation and lodging. One could not walk through the convention halls without passing through a gauntlet of Romney supporters waving signs, wearing blue shirts, handing out stickers, and urging all passersby to vote for Mitt in the straw poll. Given that 1,705 people ended up voting in the poll, Romney’s performance means that possibly more than half of his votes were essentially bought. Viewed in this way, his narrow margin of victory looks less impressive.
As Romney defenders have pointed out, however, this nonetheless demonstrates the potency of his organization and bringing volunteers to the conference was certainly within the rules. Sen. Brownback also had a strong presence of volunteers in attendance. And whatever it took to get there, the bottom line is that the former Massachusetts governor came out of the conference with headlines such as “Romney First Choice in Conservative Straw Poll,” which has to be seen as good news for the campaign.
For Giuliani, who now enjoys a more than 20-point lead nationally in several polls on the Republican nomination battle and has strong standing among moderates, the question going in to the conference was whether he could potentially appeal to conservatives. His reception at CPAC, at a minimum, shows he has an opening.
The staunchly conservative crowd at CPAC, in theory, should be among the most hostile toward Giuliani, given his positions on abortion, gay rights, and gun control. And yet, Giuliani entered and exited the room to rousing standing ovations as “New York, New York” blasted. He received a glowing introduction by George Will, who called Giuliani’s reign as mayor of New York City the most successful example of conservative governance in the 20th Century.
The former mayor had a strong second place showing in the straw poll, beating out established conservatives such as Gingrich and Brownback. Furthermore, if you combine people’s first choice and second choice, Giuliani pulled ahead, with 34 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent each for Romney and Gingrich. This could be viewed as a better measure, because in primaries, oftentimes a first choice bails out and voters are forced to go with their second choice.
The results are all the more impressive, because, unlike Romney, Giuliani didn’t make much of an effort to win the straw poll. He didn’t have volunteers on hand, and the only Giuliani signs were homemade on poster board by supporters who said they came to CPAC on their own. To Giuliani critics, this reinforces the fact that he lags his rivals in organization.
David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, said that the poll results represent a snapshot of who voters view as the best candidate relative to the field at this point in time.
“Since there is no favorite, since there’s nobody who has what I’d call a genetic claim to conservative support, each of these guys based on that part of their record that appeals to conservatives, can make a case for themselves,” Keene said. He added that “there’s no Reagan out there. If you had six candidates and Reagan show up, the other six may as well go home.”
Gingrich, meanwhile, who hasn’t even said he will run, had a strong showing in the poll. If he decides to join the race, even if he doesn’t win, he could have an impact on the race by forcing the other candidates into an intellectual debate on policy issues, Keene said. Among the 30 percent of straw poll participants who identified themselves social conservatives, Brownback did the best, but his challenge will be to expand his appeal beyond that group of voters.
While people disagreed about how some of the candidates fared at CPAC, there was near-universal agreement that McCain came off badly. At a time when his standing among moderates and independents is fading, he angered many conservatives by not showing up, and Giuliani’s late decision to attend left McCain as the only Republican candidate to shun the event. When his name was mentioned in announcing his fifth place finish in the straw poll, part of the audience booed. Keene said he was “hurt significantly” not necessarily because he didn’t attend, but because his campaign’s explanation kept changing. First they said he didn’t need to come because of his strong conservative voting record, then the campaign tried to book a room to hold a separate event during CPAC, and finally they said it was a scheduling conflict. “He looked silly,” Keene said.