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Conservatives Look for a Winning Hand

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a leading Republican presidential hopeful, signs autographs at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a leading Republican presidential hopeful, signs autographs at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 3, 2007

Each year for more than three decades, a handful of icons of the American conservative movement have met for a friendly game of seven-card stud in a Washington hotel suite the night before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.

This week, according to several participants, the mood around the poker table could hardly have been more glum.

"Nothing focuses the mind like an impending hanging," said longtime conservative fundraiser Richard A. Viguerie, paraphrasing the English essayist Samuel Johnson. "And Republicans feel an impending hanging with Hillary looming on the horizon."

The possibility of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as president was bad enough. Even worse is the absence of a Republican candidate to rally around.

The movement's leaders "are all pretty much agreed that there is no clear conservative choice," said the game's host, David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Or even an unclear conservative choice."

The apprehension of Keene and his poker partners is shared not only by the more than 5,000 activists on hand as the conference began yesterday. It is mirrored across the broader constituency of the Republican Party.

Between the war in Iraq, President Bush's low approval ratings, the recent midterm defeats and a void at the top with neither the president nor the vice president in the race, several Republican strategists said the mood is drearier than it has been since 1992.

"There's a sense that the Republican brand is down and it needs to come back up again if there's going to be a chance," said John Feehery, who served as communications director for Tom DeLay when the Texan was House majority leader.

Even among White House staff members, there are frequent morbid jokes that the next occupant will be a Democrat, and there has been no mass exodus of Bush administration officials to Republican campaigns as there might have been during a more optimistic time.

Polling data, though an unreliable predictor of an election 20 months away, suggest Republicans have as good a chance of keeping the White House as losing it. Republicans are marginally ahead in many of the hypothetical head-to-head contests, suggesting that the country as a whole is divided down the middle when it comes to choosing a president.

Still, the party's mood is shaping the contest, and even leading Republicans are not overly optimistic. "I'm confident that we'll do fine," Sen. John McCain of Arizona said with uncharacteristic caution last week when asked to gauge the party's chances in the next presidential campaign cycle.

McCain, considered a front-runner for the GOP nomination, said his belief is that the country is still a "right-of-center nation, and the Republican Party is still a right-of-center party," adding, with a broad grin, that the GOP nominee can win "if the guy's not too big of a jerk."

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