The Conservative Political Action Conference is one of the biggest and most anticipated events on the conservative calendar. Generally, the excitement in the air is palpable as conservatives gather to hear over and over again about how their ideas alone are the path to the nation’s salvation.
This year? Not so much.
The incredibly divisive Republican presidential primary has taken its toll on the mood at this year’s conference. Conversations with attendees tell the same story: none of the candidates has them all that stoked about the next 10 months.
Take 69 year-old Judith Leone of New Jersey. She was a big time Mitt Romney supporter in 2008, now she’s undecided.
“Last time we were both Romney supporters,” she said of her and a friend accompanying her at the event. So what happened since then? According to Leone, liberals have gotten so much scarier since taking power that people are more inclined to believe some kind of magnetic street-fighter is the only antidote.
“I think that he’s handsome, but he doesn’t have charisma,” she said of Romney. “I wonder if he has the backbone to take on the liberals. Liberals got stronger since last time, they’re pushing through a tougher agenda now. I worry he can’t fight it.”
But she’s not sold on Gingrich: “a loose cannon, but he’s probably the brightest one.” She also has doubts about Santorum, who she fears may be too conservative to win.
I asked her if she feels like the general election has been looking tougher recently. She sighed loudly.
“Every day is different. Some days it feels like we’re strong, but my biggest concern is voter fraud. Some days I feel like it doesn’t matter who we put up.”
Even CPAC stars aren’t feeling it. TPM caught up with Andrew Breitbart — whose trademark bluster has been a highlight of attendees for at least a couple of CPACs — and he seemed rather down on the potential GOP nominees set to take the stage at the conference Friday.
On Newt Gingrich, Breitbart said the former House Speaker doesn’t have the momentum among conservatives he may think he does.
“I think they misinterpreted South Carolina,” he told TPM. “It wasn’t that conservatives were saying in this Tea Party state that this is our guy.”
“Newt was a proxy,” he said, referring to the lingering concerns about Romney. Breitbart described Gingrich as “damaged goods” because of his sharing a couch with Nancy Pelosi.
As for Santorum, he’s concerned that in a general election he’s too weak to go up against the liberal media and that he can’t exploit the press with snappy quotes or a charismatic message. His substance, however, is fine by him.
“He’s going to have to go through a general election where the media going to be a buzzsaw,” he said.
“Can you tell I’m not excited about any of these candidates?” he said.
For their part, organizers say the magic’s still there at CPAC.
“This great annual tradition is an opportunity for the conservative movement to set our agenda for the coming year, hear from our most influential leaders and unite and energize an army of patriotic, committed conservatives in the pursuit of a return to American Exceptionalism,” American Conservative Union chair Al Cardenas said in his opening remarks on dais.
Before the event even began, Cardenas was hyping up this year’s conference to reporters, promising that this year’s CPAC straw poll will be the real deal, a true barometer of conservative sentiment toward their candidates.
He may be right. But it seems clear from wandering around the exhibit halls that “meh” would have the lead after the first day of CPAC if it was on the straw poll ballot.