McCain’s conspicuous absence

The 6,000 or so activists who descended on Washington over the weekend to debate the future of the conservative movement and consider the relative merits of a half-dozen or more presidential wannabes made it clear to everyone who was there or watching what went on that they aren’t completely satisfied with any of the so-called frontrunners but are open to persuasion.

They came, of course, to attend the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which is sponsored these days by more than 90 conservative organizations. They heard everyone from California Congressman Duncan Hunter, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore to Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, New York’s Rudy Giuliani and the ubiquitous non-candidate Newt Gingrich make the case that they have earned or will do whatever it takes to earn conservative support for their presidential ambitions. The astounding thing to most observers was that each made a case that resonated with some of the attendees.

That all of the frontrunners felt they had to make an unapologetic conservative case for their candidacy says a lot about the importance of the conservative-activist base within the GOP. It also suggests they all know that no one has conservative support locked up or can take it for granted.

The only prospective candidate who didn’t attend was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose staff initially rejected the invitation, telling reporters that the senator doesn’t have to attend “events like this” because his conservative record is so clear that conservatives at this conference — like those who attended the National Review’s “Conservative Summit” a few weeks ago and the House Republican Study Committee’s retreat before that — could judge him on his record without his being there.

At the time McCain dismissed the conference as an unimportant waste of time for one as important as he, it appeared that neither he nor Giuliani would be attending. What he and his staff didn’t realize, however, was that the former New York mayor was busily rearranging his schedule to make the conference. When he announced as attendees were beginning to arrive in Washington, he created a situation in which McCain was the only potential candidate who wasn’t attending and the only one to dismiss the gathering as unimportant.

McCain’s people reacted to questions about how doing this fit into his strategy of courting conservative support with blank stares and finally began claiming that CPAC was not representative of anything, as it is attended mostly by “Washington insiders.” What was apparent to reporters and others, however, was that the 6,300 conservative activists streaming in from outside Washington were, in fact, from everywhere but Washington. As it turned out, they had come from all 50 states and were crowding the halls of the Shoreham and a couple of neighboring hotels that had been booked solid weeks in advance.
When the senator’s people realized this wouldn’t fly they tried to go around the organizers to get a room to host a separate reception for attendees, but were told quite accurately that every function room and suite in the host hotel were sold out. They satisfied themselves in the end by telling reporters that the senator would have come but for scheduling difficulties.

In fact, had McCain attended, he would have been well received. He finished fourth anyway in the straw poll won by Mitt Romney, but was booed every time his name was mentioned for the way he and his ham-handed managers handled the whole thing. There is much about his record that conservatives don’t like, but a good bit they admire as well. That is something that can be said of the other wannabes as well … and all of them were well received.

The big winners were Romney, Giuliani, Brownback and Gilmore.

Gilmore, like Newt Gingrich — who closed the conference and was mobbed by the crowd — appealed to audience members’ longing for leaders who have been with them over the years. After all, while conservatives believe in political redemption and will rally around converts, they admire those who have been with them from the beginning.

The loser, of course, was John McCain — not because he wasn’t there, but because of the essentially mean-spirited manner in which he and his staff dismissed the very people whose support he claims he is seeking.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).