The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) began yesterday at Washington, DC’s Marriot Wardman Park Hotel. The American Conservative Union, while less influential in the conservative movement than it was during its heyday in the 1970’s, still hosts the event, which has become a well-attended, well-covered political and media extravaganza.
The 2012 CPAC conference is likely to occupy the center ring in the Republican presidential nomination circus today. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are all on the CPAC agenda today hoping to prove their conservative bona fides and earn the support of the decidedly right-of-center voters who represent the lion’s share of the GOP’s political base.
For those three and Texas congressman Ron Paul, a solid, conservative red-meat speech could provide a much-needed and long-lasting spark to a relative media lull in the normally tumultuous nomination contest. Conversely, a poor or lackluster performance might convince conservatives and political media types that one candidate just doesn’t have the ability to drive conservative voter base intensity.
The stakes are particularly high for Romney, Gingrich and the newly resurgent Santorum. Santorum speaks this morning and hopes his recent stunning successes in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado coupled with endorsements from heavy-hitting social issues leaders will convince conservatives to view him, rather than Gingrich, as the movement’s alternative to Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor speaks after Santorum and will undoubtedly promote himself as a true conservative who can be trusted. Expect him to throw anti-Obama red meat to the crowd as he tries to convince conference-goers that he has the best chance of beating the President in November. Gingrich, whose numbers have been slipping steadily since a couple of lackluster debate performances in the run-up to the Florida primary will seek to regain his footing by re-connecting with conservative movement leaders he has known and worked with for more than 30 years.
While Rep. Paul certainly has a following among conservatives who are focused on shrinking the government and returning to a commodity-backed currency, his global policy positions and some of his stands on social issues are likely to make him unacceptable to many foreign policy and cultural conservatives.
A CPAC/Washington Times straw vote will be held on Saturday with naturally no delegate votes at stake. The straw vote may not determine who GOP conservatives back nationally, but the outcome will certainly help the winner claim the “true conservative” mantel.