By Dana Milbank
Saturday, March 3, 2007
"It's an honor to be here in high heels, walking backwards," Mitt Romney said yesterday as he began his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Don't panic, Phyllis Schlafly: He was merely referring to a previous speaker's invocation of an old joke. But for a guy trying to win over religious conservatives, it was a strange opening line.
If the former Massachusetts governor is going to win the Republican presidential nomination, he is going to have to overcome suspicions that he is a supporter of alternative lifestyles and other things that rile the right -- and a discussion of women's footwear may not be the way to do it.
Outside the ballroom at the Omni Shoreham, a man was strolling about in a dolphin costume and a T-shirt declaring "Flip Romney: Just another Flip Flopper From Massachusetts." The porpoise was ready to burst his blowhole: "First he was pro-choice, now magically he's pro-life. First he's for gun control, then he's against it."
Other CPAC attendees handed out full-size yellow Romney flip-flops announcing, "1992: Romney voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas for president." On each chair was a "Romney multiple-choice exam" about gun control, taxes, abortion and gay rights; the answer to each question was "both A and B." Another flier juxtaposed Romney's photo with John Kerry's, warning that Romney "told Planned Parenthood he supports Roe v Wade!"
For Romney, it showed a measure of bravery just coming to CPAC. John McCain skipped the event, and Rudy Giuliani gave a timid speech that avoided abortion and gay rights. CPAC is, after all, not a place to showcase diverse viewpoints.
In the session preceding Romney, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) said of Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq: "She's an idiot." In the session after Romney, Ann Coulter used an anti-gay slur to describe John Edwards (the line drew applause) and asked: "Did Al Gore actually swallow Michael Moore?" When a questioner asked Coulter why she praises marriage but broke off so many engagements, she responded by calling the questioner ugly.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) got the crowd cheering early in the day. "I have been called -- my kids are all aware of this -- dumb, crazy man, science abuser, Holocaust denier, villain of the month, hate-filled, warmonger, Neanderthal, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun," he announced. "And I can just tell you that I wear some of those titles proudly."
Inhofe repeated his view that man-made global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," and he quarreled with a Bush administration proposal to list polar bears as a threatened species. "They're overpopulated," he declared. "Don't worry about it: The polar bear is fine." His staff handed out supporting documentation, including the claim that "MARS HAS GLOBAL WARMING DESPITE ABSENCE OF SUVs."
Still, even the CPAC faithful know that the true conservatives in the GOP presidential race, figures such as Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), have little chance of prevailing. Attendees here were, instead, talking about the least bad options among the major contenders: McCain, Giuliani and Romney.
That explains why, of more than 5,000 CPAC attendees, only 336 were on hand to hear Hunter deliver a speech proposing a wall across the Mexican border. By contrast, 1,500 people jammed the room to hear Romney. Several hundred more had to watch on televisions in the hallway. "Note rapturous crowd applause," Romney's lawyer, Ben Ginsburg, instructed a reporter. There were, in fact, several red "Mitt" mitts and blue Romney signs among the attendees.
The governor got off to a bad start when anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, assigned to introduce Romney, couldn't be located. "Grover apparently made a pit stop," the master of ceremonies announced. The pit stop went on for five minutes, forcing organizers to entertain the crowd with video titled "The Hillary Show" by the anti-Clinton Web site Stophernow.com.
Norquist said that the difficulty of being a conservative in Massachusetts made Romney like Ginger Rogers in the old joke: She "did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels."
The handsome Romney had a smooth delivery, but he looked mechanical as he used the teleprompter, which apparently malfunctioned while he was trying to quote Ronald Reagan. "I'll make sure I get it here right," he said, as he reached for his notes.
The governor began his discussion, sensibly, with economic policy, where his conservative credentials are not questioned. But he didn't quite have his message ready for a bumper sticker. "If I am elected president, I am going to cap non-defense discretionary spending at inflation minus 1 percent!" he vowed.
It was time for the social issues, and Romney wasn't holding back. "I stood at the center of the battlefield on every major social issue," said the man who once vowed to best Ted Kennedy in support of gay rights. "I fought to preserve our traditional values and to protect the sanctity of human life."
"This isn't the time for us to shrink from conservative principles," Romney said before he departed. Indeed, for Romney, it is the time to adopt them.
The speech didn't sway Flip the dolphin, who continued his rounds. But Romney had, at least, won over Coulter. "I think he's probably our best candidate," she said. She'd prefer Duncan Hunter, she said, but "I'm being realistic." And, besides, "I love Mormons," Coulter said. "In 1992, Bill Clinton came in third in Utah."