Published February 27, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Sarah Palin ... Bobby Jindal ... Michael Steele ... Newt Gingrich ... These are the names American conservatives are talking about to run for president in 2012. But does any of them have what it takes to be the leader of a conservative resurgence in the Republican party?
"Is there a Ronald Reagan figure? No. But it's really too early," said Larry Hart, director of government relations for the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington
Ronald Reagan is typically held up as the gold standard for conservative political leadership, and his iconic face is never far from the posters, buttons, T-shirts and book jackets found at CPAC, which was expecting some 9,000 attendees this year.
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Noticeably gone is the image of George W. Bush, who was the standard-bearer of the Republican Party and CPAC for almost a decade, but who has left a wide leadership gap after presiding over the biggest GOP electoral losses in recent times.
"There is no leader in the party, unfortunately," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who was a presidential candidate for a while leading up to the 2008 election. "I don't want the leader to be someone like Obama, who has become a cult figure. But this is a huge problem for us -- huge."
For sure, there are a number of people at CPAC who seem eager to step boldly into the breach, including several former presidential candidates who were near-rock stars at the CPAC just one year ago. Mike Huckabee has already railed against President Obama's federal budget, and Mitt Romney and Ron Paul were scheduled to speak on Friday.
A booth promoting the Draft Sarah Committee 2012 exclaimed the many reasons why the Alaska governor and former Republican vice presidential candidate could lead the movement back to power in Washington.
"Values, executive ability and leadership -- they all go together. She's exciting. She attracts people. She's more than a political candidate," said Paul Streitz, chairman of the draft movement, which hopes to establish a grassroots network for Palin across the country "if she chooses to run."
There is never a lack of star power at the CPAC. On Friday, ballroom speakers blasted the rock ballad "Eye of the Tiger" as former House Speaker Gingrich slowly made his way to podium for his midday speech amid a groping throng of young fans.
But there were mixed feelings throughout the event as to whether the conservative movement -- or even the Republican Party -- needs to anoint a leader quickly as it recovers from the painful electoral losses of 2008.
"The conservative movement needs no leader," insisted Robert Romano, editor for Americans for Limited Government. He said this year's CPAC was more about ideas, unfettered by loyalty to one leader, one candidate. "For the Republican Party, elected officials, potential candidates, this is a time for reflection," he said.
Indeed, CPAC this year seemed to be less about the cult of personality -- fewer booths hawking buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers -- and more about exploring new ways to get back to basics. Even Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian who was widely rejected by CPAC attendees during the presidential campaign last year, seemed to be enjoying a warmer reception this time around.
What conservatives need is less pep rally and more think tank, observers said. John Hendershot, who works for YRNetwork.com, an online meeting place for young Republicans, called the mood part of a "Republican renaissance, refining what we stand for. I don't think we can pick someone to lead it, yet."