CPAC — a rollicking combination of trade show, political rally, and support group for College Republicans — opened with the usual happy tossing of red meat. One congressman used his time to decry mandates for low-flow toilets: “We are a nation of double-flushers!”
But even in the convention’s early hours, there were signs of the tension that threatens to pull apart the movement. And each of the four Republican presidential campaigns is trying to grab the biggest piece.
“Our goal is to be the counter-Mitt,” said Aaron Harvey, 37, a volunteer for former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). He was standing at the bottom of an escalator at the conference, trying to hit up supporters of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) in the two seconds as they passed.
“I like Rick. He’s a good guy,” Harvey was telling one Santorum supporter. But Gingrich has better ideas, Harvey said. And he’s ready to lead. “Rick’s a young guy. He’s got time.”
The conference, in its 39th year, provides a sampling of American conservatism. The attendees included businessmen in the Platinum and Diamond sections, and young activists in a “Conservative Dating” class (“What’s your definition of attractive?” the leader asked a young man in the front row. Healthy-looking hair, he answered.).
The CPAC exhibitors ranged from the mainstream, such as the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association and the Heritage Foundation, to groups deep into the party’s niche issues. One T-shirt for sale showed a handgun and the slogan “I Don’t Dial 911.” Another group, which says its members are lay Catholics who defend Christian morals, displayed the slogan “Neither Apostasy nor Dhimmitude.” (“Dhimmitude” is a term some activists use to mean submission of non-Muslims to Islamic law).
On Thursday, a series of activist leaders and Republican officials took the main stage to repeat one another’s argument: The country is facing an existential crisis.
“We are on the precipice of an abyss,” said Colin Hanna, president of the group Let Freedom Ring USA, arguing that Obama, if reelected, would let the federal debt grow to more dangerous levels.
For Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), the key metaphor wasn’t a cliff. It was a book. Obama, he said, would alter U.S. culture so much as to end the American narrative that began with the Founding Fathers. “The decision to end this great story we call America,” he said. “Close the book, or turn the page. The choice is ours.”