Exit, Stage Right

Hello, he must be going.
Hello, he must be going. (By Jonathan Ernst -- Getty Images)
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By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 8, 2008

He may have wasted $50 million in his botched bid for the presidency, but Mitt Romney executed a flawless exit from the race yesterday.

The news that he was quitting his run for the Republican nomination broke minutes before his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. But because there was no cellphone reception in the basement ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Romney took the CPAC audience by surprise.

So when, at the end of what had sounded like his usual stump speech, he dropped his bomb -- "I feel I have to now stand aside" -- conservative activists in the crowd put hands to mouth, gasped and shouted out in protest.

"No, no!" "Fight on!" "Booo!"

But it was done. Within seconds, a moist-eyed Romney, biting his lip, and his wife, Ann, forcing a pained smile, disappeared behind the curtain for the last time.

His fans filed out as if leaving a funeral. Drew Cutler, who wore a Romney T-shirt and had hammered inflatable Romney bats together throughout the speech, deflated the toys. "I was going to go home and donate to him some more," he lamented. What now? "I'll have to grieve for a few days."

So, it seems, will much of the conservative movement. Romney had captured the conservative establishment in his bid for the Republican nomination, and over the past month he became part of a desperate effort by the right to keep the nomination from going to John McCain. The effort's sudden failure yesterday created an instant meltdown in the Shoreham ballroom.

Two hours after Romney's exit, when McCain walked into the same ballroom to give his first speech as the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for president, lusty boos from the CPAC crowd rivaled the cheers for the party's new standard-bearer. As it happens, the panel session wedged between the two candidates' speeches was titled "Is the GOP Still Lost?" It hardly seemed necessary, but a show of hands at the end of the panel produced a unanimous vote in the affirmative.

"I cannot vote for John McCain," vowed Ryan Hamilton as he left the ballroom with a Romney sign, two Romney T-shirts and three foam "Mitt mitts" in his arms.

A young McCain volunteer spied Hamilton. "You want a McCain sticker?" she asked.

"You can put that in the trash," Hamilton growled at her, and he offered his nickname for the candidate: "McVain."

McCain's challenge with conservatives was described in biblical proportions; at least five news organizations previewed his CPAC speech as a trip to "the lion's den." And, on "radio row" in the exhibition hall, talk-show hosts were excoriating McCain. "He's a thorn in the true conservative's side," broadcast Ben Ferguson. "He's no Ronald Reagan," intoned G. Gordon Liddy.

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