At Republican Conference, the Future Is Now

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."

Frist won the straw poll with 36.9 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 14.4 percent, while Allen and President Bush (from write-in ballots) tied for third. Fourth was McCain with 4.6 percent.

The Peabody is, of course, a celebrated Memphis landmark, known for the daily spectacle of ducks walking across the lobby, none of them lame. The poultry parade will inevitably cram the immediate area with onlookers to a point where, for hours before, guests can be seen staking out the prime viewing spaces by the elevators (from where the little critters emerge). And one hasn't lived, apparently, until sipping bloodys at the Peabody bar while watching duckies waddle out of the elevator to the rollicking tones of Chris Matthews.

The other focal point of the conference was the Grand Ballroom upstairs, where the speeches were delivered. The program began at 1 p.m. Friday. Alabama's GOP Chairman Twinkle Cavanaugh recited the Pledge of Allegiance -- which in itself isn't interesting but allows us to get the name Twinkle Cavanaugh into the story.

It took exactly 23 minutes for a speaker -- RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman -- to declare that the next election will be "the most important of our lifetime," one of the great recurring tropes in American politics, though it's unclear if Mehlman was predicting that 2006 or 2008 would be the most important. His speech was a relentless assault on Democrats for what he says is their liberal agenda, their retreat in the war on terror, the taxes-raising, their cutting and running, all that.

As with many speeches Friday, the crowd seemed subdued and largely silent through many of the red meat applause lines. Once, during a speech by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Friday night, the governor stopped himself when he detected the genesis of a single clap.

"Ma'am," Barbour said in his characteristically deep drawl that sounds like his mouth is full of mud. "The psychiatrists say it's unhealthy to stifle applause. We don't want you depressing any of your emotions." This got applause.

The audience was more animated Saturday afternoon, especially when native son Frist spoke. Usually, these straw poll events are a battlefield for supporters to compete for the most visible and raucous presence during their candidates' speeches. But the contest was largely ceded in this case to the home team, especially after Barbour -- from neighboring Mississippi -- said he wasn't running.

But one of the most stunning scenes of the weekend occurred late Saturday morning, when Allen submitted to a live interview with Fox News in the back of the ballroom while Brownback was in the middle of his speech. As the Kansas senator began a discussion on genocide in Darfur, Allen, who had just finished his own remarks, began gabbing away to Fox -- bathed in distracting TV lights and audible to a significant portion of the room.

The hubbub drew the notice of about 30 reporters, who proceeded to crowd around Allen's riser -- less to hear what he was saying than to marvel at this breach of protocol. At one point, Allen invoked Reagan's "11th Commandment" that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Other Republicans -- though apparently there's no 12th Commandment that Thou Shalt Not Do Live Shots While Other Republicans Are Trying to Speak.

Brownback's speech ended, Sen. Lindsey Graham's began, and Allen was still doing Fox.

Finally done, Allen walked out of the ballroom and complained that "it's impossible to do an interview with all that going on in there."

When a reporter asked if it was proper for Allen to give a TV interview during someone else's speech, Allen said, "I hated doing it," and then suggested that the question might be better put to Fox.

He was more sheepish than defiant. "It was impolite," Allen said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry I did it that way." Later, Allen said he thought others had stood for interviews during speeches also.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, South Carolina's Graham was hoisting himself onto the Fox set while Huckabee was trying to stir the crowd with a line ridiculing Howard Dean.

After his speech, Huckabee -- whose cheerful, earnest manner masked some of the most scathing rhetoric of the weekend against Democrats -- took his dutiful role at the center of a media scrum outside. He was asked about something he said in his speech in which he mocked the notion that no one here was supposed to be thinking about 2008. Of course, everyone here is focused on '08, he said.

"I was just trying to be honest," Huckabee told the reporter. "You guys don't believe it when we say we're not focused on '08, and none of us do, either. So if we keep repeating it, we lose credibility."

Somebody get this man some talking points.

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