At Republican Conference, the Future Is Now

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist talks to reporters after his address Saturday.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist talks to reporters after his address Saturday. "Frist Is My Leader" stickers were spotted at the gathering in Memphis. (By Greg Campbell -- Associated Press)
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

MEMPHIS, March 11 -- That's funny. We could have sworn the last presidential campaign just ended. It couldn't have been, what, more than a year, year and a half ago that George W. Bush was getting re-inaugurated and was so flush with political capital -- all of which feels as far away as Dubai right now.

And then we woke up to find it was already 2008, which might turn out to be the longest presidential year ever.

It all "began" over the weekend at the Peabody Hotel at the annual Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the first of numerous events over the next 32 months that will be dubbed "the unofficial start of the 2008 campaign."

Or, in official parlance, the conference was billed as a chance for GOP activists to gather and discuss issues and strategies for the midterm elections, "to renew our enthusiasm and beliefs," said Sen. Trent Lott, who was rushing through the lobby and who a few seconds later was getting his face pancaked on the set of "Hardball" (broadcast live from the lobby). It was all done with an eye to this November's midterm elections -- or at least that's what a procession of speakers kept saying, or pleading.

"All about '06," reiterated Arizona Sen. John McCain in his speech Friday night. He was one of six possible candidates present who might be running in the Longest Presidential Election.

Either way, the conference was an excuse for 2,000 delegates from 37 states across the South and Midwest to put on elephant ties, "Frist Is My Leader" stickers and "Condi in 08" hats. And it would be irresponsible if 100 or so political reporters weren't here to "cover" all these activists claiming to be wholly focused on '06, not '08.

But while we were all here, might as well have a presidential straw poll -- and wouldn't you know it, Hotline was sponsoring one Saturday night.

Let's face it, presidential campaign handicapping is a lot more fun than Medicare, line-item vetoes and all those other things that don't lend themselves to straw polls. It's too early to descend en masse on Cedar Rapids or Nashua, so Memphis in March -- '06 -- will do fine. Better barbeque, too.

"There clearly is a pandemic of early presidential campaign fever here," said Tom Rath, a Republican committee member from New Hampshire, the pandemic's primary host state. He said this with a discernable gleam in his eyes, even as they were rolling.

Rath knows the telltale symptoms of a body infected, as the Peabody clearly was: boom mikes looming, silly hats, candidates zigzagging the lobby, running up to Chris Matthews like he's the Good Humor man.

The roster of prospective '08-ers in Memphis included Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sens. McCain, Sam Brownback, George Allen and Bill Frist.

"I am one of the only Republican senators here who isn't running for president," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a speech Friday in the Grand Ballroom. He called himself "the designated driver."

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