You may have guessed by looking at our light blogging late last week that CPAC was keeping us busy, and you’d be correct.   We were thrilled to be a part of the biggest CPAC ever with over 6,300 people getting together in Washington, DC to debate policy, check out presidential candidates, and, of course, stop by the IWF booth in the exhibit hall.
This was my fourth year attending CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) but it was the first time I’d been to CPAC when there was an ongoing fight for the Republican nomination for POTUS.   And the candidates were out in full force with speeches, receptions, and volunteers that wouldn’t let you step five feet without giving you a brochure and/or lapel sticker.   Romney had the most organized volunteer efforts (though he did also have a decent number of anti-Romney volunteers?the most memorable of which was a man in a dolphin costume with a “Flip Romney” t-shirt), Brownback had a good showing among volunteers, and even Virginia’s Jim Gilmore had a healthy dose of grassroots support.   With so many volunteers on hand, it’s no surprise that Romney won the coveted CPAC straw poll, but it’s telling that the conservative movement is split among the major candidates:

Romney 21%
Giuliani 17%
Brownback 15%
Gingrich 14%
McCain 12%
On combined first and second place choices, Romney dropped to third:
Giuliani 34%
Gingrich 30%
Romney 30%
Back to the conference.  My Bucknell friends tell me Sen. DeMint and Grover Norquist were among the highlights of the first day.  I was able to sneak away from the IWF booth on Friday long enough to see some speakers.  Friday was the day of presidential candidates, but the star of the day wasn’t a politician – it was Wayne LaPierre of the NRA.  He brought down the house with his energetic speech.  He gets bonus points from me for walking on/off stage to the A-Team theme song.
The presidential candidate I was most curious to catch a look at was Rudy for no other reason than to see how the crowd of die-hard conservatives reacted to him.  The answer was with standing ovations.  Rudy was introduced by columnist George Will (one of the best introductions I’ve ever heard).  I thought Rudy’s speech was pretty good.  You could tell he was a little nervous about the crowd – he was almost trying too hard.  That was seen with his many (perhaps too many) Ronald Reagan references.  Rudy’s critics blasted him for “playing it safe” with his speech, as if anyone actually expected him to get on stage and talk about the issues that most conservatives disagree with him on.  Instead he did what I, and probably everyone there, thought he would do: emphasize what he was able to do for NYC, namely, reduce crime, lower taxes, and lower the number of people on welfare.  Rudy also mentioned school choice as an important domestic item and the war on terror (or, as he puts it, “their war on us”) as an important foreign policy issues.  In regards to foreign policy, he stressed the need to be on offense, not defense.

The reaction to his speech was mixed.  Some praised him, while others attacked.  But he probably earned points in nearly everyone’s book by attending the conference.  Many conference goers were upset with McCain, who was the only major presidential candidate not in attendance.

The most controversial speaker of Friday (and the whole conference, for that matter) was Ann Coulter who called John Edwards a “faggot” in her speech.  Politicians, pundits, and bloggers from both the Left and Right have rightfully criticized Coulter for her inappropriate remarks, but is anyone honestly surprised?  Last year Coulter referred to Iranians as “ragheads” and she’s used the same John Edwards line before.  Each year her shouting gets louder and louder, and I can only hope that eventually people will stop paying attention.  It’s a shame that one comment has dominated coverage of an otherwise amazing conference.  It’s also a shame that someone like Coulter resorts to third-grade name calling in so many situations when everyone (even her critics) should know that she is a really smart individual capable on interesting and thorough analysis on public policy issues.  Sinking to that level benefits no one, except John Edwards who is likely to make a bundle on fundraising efforts in response to Coulter’s comments.

Last, what’s a good conference without cool free stuff?  First prize in the free stuff awards has to go to a new think tank from Chicago that gave out Sam Adams bobble-head dolls.  Second prize goes to the organization with the booth next to IWF.  I never figured out what they do, but they gave me a stress ball and a Hillary Clinton barf bag with the slogan “socialized medicine makes me sick!” and for that, I thank them.

Thanks to all the Inkwell readers who stopped by the IWF booth to say hello.  If you couldn’t make it to the conference this year, we hope to see you at CPAC 2008!