WASHINGTON – America's conservatives are mad and they're not going to take it anymore.
That was the message the movement's leaders delivered throughout the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. last week.
One after another, conservatives told FOXNews.com that they are angry, irritated, frustrated and in some cases depressed. And the target of their angst and ire is none other than the Republican Party, which wants and needs their support to win the 2008 presidential election and avoid losing more seats in the Senate and House next election.
Many of these conservatives, whose national stars began to rise with the presidential election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, described the GOP's state of affairs in Washington with words like "failed," defeated" and "in the grave."
"The Republican Party apparently has a death wish, but that doesn't mean we conservatives have to go along with it," Richard Viguerie, a movement veteran who helped elect Reagan, said during his wildly-received speech delivered Thursday. "Let's focus on the conservative movement, not the GOP."
"We've got to stop being lackeys of the Republican Party. We've got to be a third force," said Bill Greene, head of RightMarch.com, an online activist network. He is running as a Republican in the June special election to replace the late Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who died of cancer on Feb. 13.
Several candidates vying for the GOP nomination appeared at the conference. But one — Arizona Sen. John McCain — was notably absent, and the frontrunner in generic opinion polls — former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — acknowledged to the crowd that he has differences with his audience on social issues.
That left former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holding the majority of the straws at the conference end's poll of party preferences. He won 21 percent of the 1,705 votes cast compared to Giuliani's 17 percent and McCain's 12.
Several true-blue conservatives, including Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, made his case at the event and got 15 percent of the vote. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he won't decide on a run until the fall, earned 14 percent of the vote.
"We're trying to put conservatives back together again," said Art Kelly, who works for Viguerie's online operation, ConservativesBetrayed.com. He tallied responses from the question asking participants what they believed was to blame for the Republicans' losses in November. The top three reasons cited were corruption like the Jack Abramoff scandal, conservative leaders who did not sound alarms or defend core principles and President George W. Bush himself.
"(The conservative movement) needs to be resurrected," Kelly said.
Time and again, participants and even some of the presidential hopefuls circulating among and speaking to the large crowd of college students and veteran activists blamed GOP leaders and the Bush administration for scandals, bloated government and impasses on major issues like immigration reform.
"You can't make a contract with America and break it," Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, said of the 1994 congressional class that helped usher in the "Contract with America," which pledged limited government, fiscal and social conservative reforms.
"You, all of you, are the sons and daughters of the Boston tea spillers. Act like it and go out there and make them proud!" he told conference attendees.
In Search of Inspiration in '08
Unlike recent years at the conservative confab, the movements' roots this year are in a period of "searching" — for either a new leader or a new source of inspiration.
"There is a lot of searching going on, and anger against the Republicans in Congress," said Erick Erickson, a blogger for RedState.org. "Conservatives here are searching for the conservative candidate. A lot of people don't want a repeat of the Bush administration. They like the guy (President Bush), but there is fatigue. There is a vacuum and everyone's trying to fill it."
The 2008 candidates courting the base at CPAC looked eager to leap into the breach, hitting all the right notes with a crowd wary of the GOP. Considering that most of the presidential wannabes aren't in Congress, they don't consider themselves to blame for the current conditions of the party in Washington.
"This weekend could be the launching pad to prove that those who had it all figured out, figured it out all wrong," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a long shot for the GOP nomination. "This is about convictions, nothing more, nothing less."
"It's high time to take government apart and put it back together, but this time simpler, smarter and smaller," Romney said in a speech that touched on a range of conservative points from denouncing a guest worker program for illegal aliens to reining in spending and fighting terrorists.
"Conservatism is alive and well, and it is needed more than ever. America faces a new generation of challenges, critical challenges. Today is similar in many respects to what we faced as a nation 30 years ago, looking at the menacing face of communism," Romney said.
Giuliani generated a great deal of buzz at the conference and was a big topic of debate among CPAC devotees, many of whom said they like his optimism and his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York.
"Giuliani has the star factor right now," said Erickson, who added that conservatives are considering whether to make "a deal with the devil" and support Giuliani, who is strong on defense and fiscal issues but does not share their views on abortion, religion or same-sex marriages.
While Romney attempted to defuse questions over his conservative credentials, including a sea change in his position on abortion, Giuliani made no excuses for his differences with some in the audience.
"We don't all see eye to eye on everything," said Giuliani. "I don't agree with myself on everything."
Also citing Reagan, who famously said he would work with anyone with whom agrees 80 percent of the time, Giuliani continued: "The point of a presidential election is to figure out who do you believe the most, and what do you think are the most important things for this country at a particular time."
Paul Weyrich, another movement veteran now disenchanted with the GOP, said conservatives are eager to find a leader, but the conference is in the early days of the campaign and are just a vetting process.
"What they saw in 9/11 was leadership. When they see a full exposition of him on the issues, they are going to have a very different attitude toward Giuliani," Weyrich predicted.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee last week, warned against too many conservative promises from candidates who just want to shore up votes for the primaries.
"We have the advantage that no one else does — we have a solid conservative record of leadership that can be counted on," he told FOXNews.com as he circulated throughout the exhibition hall. "We don’t have to spend money to pretend we are something that we are not."
Greene had a similar warning. "If (candidates) don’t have prominent conservatives around them now, they're not going to have them around in the White House."
John Gizzi, political editor for Human Events Magazine who participated as an emcee on Friday, told the audience that the rush of presidential hopefuls at CPAC means the base will play an important role in shaping the 2008 elections.
"I can't overstate the fact that so many candidates are coming to see you all out there," he said. "It indicates that it is going to be an interesting battle."
Looking to the Future
From the amount of anti-Hillary Clinton action, it is clear that conservatives either believe the New York senator will be the Democratic nominee in 2008 or are having fun kidding themselves. Her presence at CPAC ranged from her image adorning humorous campaign buttons and t-shirts to the focus of serious calls to arms lest she follow her husband Bill Clinton into the White House.
"We want to define (Clinton)," said Richard Collins, a Republican strategist who rolled out the StopHerNow.com campaign, which includes animated video shorts called "The Hillary Show." The videos seek to depict Clinton as a true courtier to the liberal establishment rather than a moderate centrist in the Senate.
"The conservative movement was shellacked last November," Collins said, adding that he's not sure they have yet recovered. But rallying around a common enemy can't hurt.
And if not the enemy, than many in the audience are looking for key issues to rally around.
"We have failed to talk to the middle class and we risk repeating that in 2008," said Weyrich. "The party has become a party of Wall Street and it's more comfortable in boardrooms than on Main Street and it has not learned what is troubling people."
Mary Katharine Ham, blogger for the conservative TownHall.com, said while pro-life issues and other social conservative flashpoints will continue to rally the base, a lot can be accomplished by focusing on fiscal conservatism and addressing peoples' waning confidence in the direction of the the country.
"I think pocketbook issues are the way to go," she said. "I think this is a good message to go to the people with."
Nick Lorris, a graduate student at George Mason University who is interning at the TownHall.com Web site, said gatherings like CPAC are allowing the movement to "heal" and regroup around a mission.
"I would definitely say there is a sense of optimism and that this is the best way to get over the 2006 election," said Nick Loris, "It's like a recuperation process. People are here with some important issues we need to concentrate on."