Conservative Activists Uncertain About 2012 GOP Field

WASHINGTON -- If the mood at the Conservative Political Action Conference is any gauge, Republican presidential hopefuls have a lot of convincing to do in order to sway the base to their side.

As candidates jockey for position ahead of the 2012 campaign, conservative activists are projecting a whole lot of uncertainty about the field that's starting to take shape. Attendees at the annual conservative convention in Washington, D.C., found a nit to pick with a number of the GOP leaders vying for their affection, and possibly their vote.

Some complained that the candidates with a sound policy vision had no "charisma." Those with plenty of personality offered less in the way of substance, they said. Some were too far right, others weren't conservative enough. Many said they'd prefer to "wait and see" before warming up to anyone in particular.

"I'm disappointed with the front-runners," charged Tom Walls, a libertarian-leaning conservative affiliated with the Republican Liberty Caucus. He's afraid that hopefuls like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spoke to CPAC Friday morning, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who declined an invite to the annual event, are "unelectable."

Neither confirmed a presidential bid, but speculation has been rampant that both are considering it.

"There are a lot of plusses and minuses," said Steve Allen, editor of the new Tea Party Review, which was being launched at CPAC this weekend.

To win them over, several prospective candidates were on the bill for this year's CPAC, considered in part a "first date" on the campaign trail with the conservative base, the most important partnership for any serious Republican primary contender.

On Thursday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke, signed books and previewed a new documentary. Former Sen. Rick Santorum spoke in the main ballroom, as did business tycoon Donald Trump, whose campaign-like remarks indicated that his flirtation with a presidential run might be a full-on affair.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and libertarian favorite Rep. Ron Paul -- who won the CPAC straw poll in 2010 -- rounded out Friday afternoon.

Other big names on the speakers' list included Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is seeking to patch up things with the base after social conservatives took offense at his suggesting they call a "truce" on social issues; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Of course, those who don't show up at CPAC often make just as much news as those who do. Aside from Palin, notable no-shows included conservative favorite Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who gave a rousing speech last year but declined an invitation this time around.

Not everyone agrees that CPAC is a litmus test for the conservative base, but attendees like Arthur Lindsey of Peoria, Ill., suggest it's a critical first step for any candidate. "It's that (President Ronald) Reagan mantle they want, and if they want us to accept you, then you better come and show us what you got," Lindsey said.

Some attendees who spoke with Friday suggested it did not help former President George W. Bush to skip CPACs during his eight years in office. Some are wondering now whether they should have taken that as some sort of sign.

"People felt burned with what happened with George W. Bush," said Allen. "They were feeling burned that he didn't govern the way they liked and then they looked back and wondered if he was ever one of us."

Reagan spoke to CPAC 12 times since its inception in 1973.

Conservatives still talk about how they felt pushed into supporting Sen. John McCain in his failed presidential bid in 2008. McCain skipped CPAC in 2007. He apologized when he showed up in 2008 after he had cleared the field for the primary (Romney used his own speech to say he was dropping out to support McCain, who had been leading the primaries at that point). McCain was subsequently booed during his own remarks by conservatives who did not like his stand on immigration.

Todd Kellert, a tax lawyer from New York and CPAC attendee, told that he didn't think too much stock should be put into the prospective candidates at CPAC, at least not this year. He recalled how the "buzz" at the 2007 CPAC was that ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who attended CPAC that year, would win the nomination and face Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 general election. Both candidates failed at their nomination bids.

"It's a long way away," Kellert said of the presidential primaries.

This is not to say that the politicians who did appear did not have enthusiastic supporters. Paul fans stood in line just to watch him on video in the overflow room when the main ballroom was filled for his Friday speech. Supporters of libertarian Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico who gave a speech Friday morning, were seen passing out stickers and signs throughout the event.

More than a few attendees said they thought Romney looked pretty good this time around. "I think he has good appeal," said Cecilia Gallogly, 19, a student from George Washington University, though she admitted "I'm feeling my way" around the potential field.

Don Watnick, founder of the new Tea Party Review, said he would like to see Palin run for president and wasn't deterred by her second snub of CPAC. "She strikes me as one of us."

Every prospective candidate who spoke over the past two days seemed to be trying very hard to tap into the Tea Party message, demonstrating the sustained influence of the movement which is relatively new to the CPAC scene. They all talked about fiscal conservatism rooted in constitutional principles and of limited government, about the founding fathers and much about Reagan.

"I think the Tea Party is going to have a very large impact," said Watnick, who is a county Republican chair in Fresno, Calif., and a member of the Tea Party.

Allen suggested the Tea Party voters are also realists who are likely to be very discerning, and will want a candidate who "has that energy and creativity (of the Tea Party), but still has the best chance of being nominated, and elected."