There was little consensus among attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday on who should win the Republican presidential nomination.
But there appeared to be broad agreement on who should not get the nod: former Massachusetts governor (and current GOP presidential front-runner) Mitt Romney.
Interviews with attendees on the first day of the annual summit of conservatives in Washington, D.C., reflected an array of views as disparate as the results of the first month of nominating contests, which have been split among Romney, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) — who has yet to win a primary or caucus but who has won the CPAC straw poll for the past two years — was also a favorite of many of this year’s conference attendees, who as in years past tend to skew younger and more libertarian-leaning than the GOP primary electorate at large.
Many of the non-Romney supporters who attended CPAC on Thursday voiced resignation that the former Massachusetts governor, who leads in the delegate race, would eventually win the nomination.
Charlie Vidal, a 22-year-old student from Chicago, and Chris Bernardes, a 24-year-old bank employee from Fairfax County, Va., are both longtime Paul supporters who said they plan to support the Texas congressman again this time around, mainly due to his views on fiscal issues and monetary policy.
But despite their enthusiasm for Paul, both said they believed Romney would become the GOP nominee.
“If I were a betting man — and I am — I would say that Romney’s going to get the nomination,” Vidal said. “He appears to be the best-funded and have the most organization on the ground throughout the primary states.”
“Definitely the best-funded,” Bernardes said.
“And I think that’s very important – best-funded is very important as you go to Super Tuesday, when you’re trying to get multiple states at once, because you can get your message out through the media,” Vidal added. “And also, he’s kind of moderate. He looks like a president. And parties that just lost power historically tend to nominate moderates for the next campaign, the next election.”
Andres Recalde, 18, a Lehigh University student from Freehold, N.J., said that he, too, thought that Romney would probably win the nomination.
“As much as I hate to admit it, people love the guy,” Recalde said.
“No — that’s the weird thing is that no one loves him, but he’s going to have it anyway,” countered Eric Riese, 21, a fellow Lehigh student from Holland, Pa.
“Well no, but here no one loves him,” Recalde continued. “But then you look at the polls, and he’s winning ridiculously. I mean, I liked the little part where Gingrich won South Carolina. That was great. I was like, maybe people are starting to listen to Gingrich and get past his past.”
Recalde said that while he remains a Paul supporter deep down, he has decided to throw his support behind Gingrich “for the sake of electing somebody” because Paul is ultimately unelectable.
“If you look at the polls, his supporters are very loyal, but just them showing up isn’t enough,” he said. “Everyone else just thinks that he’s radical; they don’t listen to the man. He’s very rational, very simple. But people don’t listen.”
Whereas Romney is “just another politician — like Obama, just to the right,” Recalde said. “At least Gingrich I see as a smart person to keep the country going for four years.”
Garrett Cichowitz and Jack Bimber, both supporters of Rick Santorum, said they remain hopeful that their candidate will win the GOP nomination.
“Tuesday was a very exciting day, seeing him take Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. ... I think people are still largely undecided, and they like what he’s about,” said Chichowitz, 23, of Vienna, Va., who is a fellow at the Clapham Group. “I think there’s a big question of electability against Obama right now, and I think seeing Santorum win three states is going to give people more confidence with his electability.”
Bimber, 19, a student from Grove City, Pa., who originally was a supporter of former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, agreed. “I think you see more people that are not (supporters of) Romney, and so you’re looking at, I think, Santorum and Gingrich,” he said. “I’ve got mine for Santorum. I think he can push the conservatives to the top of this election.”
The two noted, however, that they think Romney will be the winner in this week’s CPAC straw poll.
There were some Romney supporters to be found at the conservative gathering, including Jen Dicus, a 21-year-old student from Medford, Ore., who plans to cast her first general election vote for the former Massachusetts governor in November.
“I just think that we need someone a little bit more moderate,” Dicus said. “I’m definitely a more conservative person, but I think that with the political climate, with Democrats in the Senate and what’s going on, I think it might be helpful to have someone that is a little bit more appealing to both sides. ... I always really liked (former Utah governor) Jon Huntsman, actually, but it was kind of one of those, ‘Inevitably, he was never going to win’ kinds of things.”
In the wake of Romney’s losses in Tuesday’s trio of contests, Dicus said that she believed Romney could benefit from talking more about social issues on the stump – something the GOP hopeful has taken to doing in recent days.
“I think he should definitely keep focusing on the issues that are kind of at hand today, focusing on what’s going on in the Catholic church, and just different things, and I think making himself more accessible to voters on social issues might be good – I think that was something that helped Ron Paul a little bit, when he kind of started talking about his social conservatism,” she said. “I think that’s something for Mitt Romney.”
While many of the conservative activists backing other candidates said Thursday that they’d back Romney if he were to win the nomination, not all were on board – a sign that, coupled with the low turnout in some of this year’s GOP contests, could be a cause for concern for the Romney camp.
“Maybe I’ll throw away my vote on, like, Vermin Supreme or Ron Paul just to throw it out there, but I won’t take it seriously,” Recalde, the Lehigh University student, said of a potential Romney-Obama match-up in the fall. “I won’t vote for Romney. I don’t support the man. If it’s Gingrich, I’ll probably throw it Gingrich’s way.”
“If it’s Ron Paul, I’ll go all out, but that’s not going to happen,” he added.