Exit, Stage Right

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.

In the ballroom, radio host Laura Ingraham, assigned to introduce Romney to the crowd, used the forum to launch an extended attack on McCain for asking conservatives recently to "just calm down a little bit." "I don't have to calm down about it," she said, calling Romney "the conservative's conservative."

Romney entered to a sea of waving signs; the applause and chants lasted even longer than the ovation Vice President Cheney got earlier in the day. He at first gave no hint that he was quitting the race, unless you caught the change in tense. "It has been a family affair," he said. "As of today, more than 4 million people have given me their vote for president."

He went through his usual stump speech. Only the tilt of his head to the side during applause and the small, nostalgic smile hinted at his emotion. "I know that many in this room are fully behind my campaign -- you are with me all the way to the convention," he said, his words punctuated by cheers and declarations of "We love you." "Fight on, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1976."

Then everything changed. "But there is an important difference," he said, going on to explain that his continued campaign would "make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win."

The stunned supporters shouted their protests, but Romney disappeared so quickly that they barely had time to stand and applaud.

"It's sad for America," said Romney supporter Susan Lowe, tears trickling down her cheeks, as she left the ballroom.

The scene in the exhibit hall reflected the earthquake that had just occurred. The woman working the Romney booth stood silently, her eyes damp, as scavengers made off with souvenirs. A campaign-pin vendor fretted that he would have to put his 600 Romney buttons in the 10-for-a-dollar "discontinued" bin with those of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. The McCain table, meanwhile, suddenly had a three-deep crowd, some decorating themselves with McCain stickers right next to their Romney emblems.

Fortunately, McCain could count on the fact that the conservatives hate Hillary Clinton even more than they hate him -- evidenced in the exhibit hall by the T-shirts ("It Takes a Village to Elect an Idiot"), knickknacks (Hillary nutcracker, Hillary bobblehead), and stickers ("Happiness Is Hillary's Face on a Milk Carton").

Former House majority leader Dick Armey tried to play on this sentiment when he asked the audience if it would really rather "sit it out and join Ann Coulter with Hillary" -- recalling the conservative pundit's claim that she would support Clinton over McCain.

But even that was of limited use. When McCain was announced, a minute of persistent booing kept pace with the applause.

"I appreciate very much your courtesy," McCain said, though little was on display.

"I hope you will pardon my absence last year," he added, to exaggerated groans from the crowd.

McCain used a teleprompter and spoke carefully. He went through his conservative credentials, winning applause for his support for the unborn and for his terrorism-fighting credentials. But mostly, the crowd listened in uncomfortable silence, at least until he mentioned "the issue of illegal immigration." Booing resumed. McCain smiled. "No amnesty!" a heckler shouted.

"I have made many mistakes," McCain said as he neared the end of the ordeal. "You can attest to that -- but need not," he hurried to add, heading off more abuse.

He left the stage quickly, but the boos returned before he could reach the curtain.

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