“And they’re off!”
You won’t hear anyone holler those words at the opening bell of the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday, but nearly a dozen Republican hopefuls will use the venue to begin jockeying for the coveted GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
As reliably as the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, conservatives of every stripe will once again descend on the nation’s capital this week to plan their next moves on the national political chessboard.
The meet-up at the Marriott Washington Wardman Park hotel promises plenty of surprises and more than a little controversy.
Look for Rep. Michele Bachmann to kick off the event Thursday morning by tossing plenty of red meat to her fellow conservatives — a role she is ideally suited for in the eyes of many supporters.
That opening address is a prime slot for Bachmann, given her own flirtation with making a presidential run. Some insiders see her as a stronger vice- presidential option, given the prominent role Sarah Palin played as a running mate in 2008.
But it won’t be all hands on deck Thursday. Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and movement-conservative favorite Sen. Jim DeMint are all skipping the conference, citing various scheduling conflicts and commitments.
Still, the other political A-listers in attendance will more than make up for their absence, including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, Ron Paul, and John Thune, to name just a few.
Social conservatives have voiced concerns that, given the rise of the tea parties and the nation’s chronic fiscal issues, the conference could shove their core issues — right to life and strong family values — off the front burner.
But the presence of Americans United for Life, Students for Life, and conservative icons such as David Horowitz and Phyllis Schlafly on the agenda should assure them that all elements of conservatism remain intact.
One sign of lingering discontent: Some social conservatives have complained that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been given too prominent a role on the agenda.
They haven’t forgotten his June 2010 remark that Republicans should “declare a truce” on social issues, to focus on the grave economic issues confronting the country.
As that kerfuffle suggests, this year’s CPAC provides unique opportunities — and risks.
A party that emerges from this year’s event split by serious divisions would find it much more difficult to take on a re-energized President Barack Obama.
But if Republicans can manage to emerge with a better understanding of how their fiscal, social, and foreign-policy priorities are complementary, Obama soon could find himself on the defensive in light of the economy’s anemic level of job creation.
American Conservative Union Chairman and CPAC host David Keene recently observed in an exclusive Newsmax.TV interview that the political establishment in Washington continues to appear seriously out-of-step with mainstream America.
“You have the Democratic governor of New York making draconian cuts along with Republican governors in New Jersey and Florida,” Keene told Newsmax. “They know there’s a problem. In Washington, you can talk to politician after politician, and they say, oh well, we can make some adjustments. They really don’t get it.”
So far, no GOP presidential contender has emerged who completely satisfies all three elements of Ronald Reagan-style conservatism — fiscal restraint, social accountability, and military readiness.
The choice of newly elected Rep. Allen West to deliver the coveted closing address on Saturday may represent an attempt to unite the party under a common banner.
A military expert and bronze-medal winner for his service in Iraq, West is a staunch conservative and tea party darling who also spoke at last year’s CPAC. The Florida Republican described himself Wednesday as “humbled” by his selection to deliver the meeting's closing remarks.
West already has developed a reputation for powerful speeches that rouse the party faithful, and his prominent CPAC address will mark another stage in his rapid ascent to rock-star status in the Republican Party.
For others, CPAC offers an opportunity to re-introduce themselves to the GOP faithful.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, may address the criticisms of the healthcare law he championed in the Bay State.
Gingrich, who has ruffled feathers with his support for ethanol subsidies, is expected to talk about his plan for energy independence.
And Barbour will have to convince attendees that his canny political gifts outweigh his recent rough treatment at the hands of the mainstream media.
“It’s a chance to brand yourself,” Keene told The New York Times.
“This is a chance for you to lay out a vision for the future to people who don’t know you or may have heard only something about you.”
CPAC 2011 — and its carefully watched straw poll listing the top conservative candidates — will begin the months-long process of winnowing down the GOP field for president.
But by no means will the results of the CPAC straw poll necessarily reflect the order in which the candidates actually cross the finish line on Aug. 27, 2012 — the day the GOP nominating convention convenes in Tampa Bay, Fla.
In the 2007 CPAC poll, the top four finishers were Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Gingrich. But the party’s 2008 nomination went to an also-ran that year who only collected 12 percent of the vote at CPAC that year.
His name was John McCain.
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