Who Won CPAC?

Rick Perry issued a call to arms, Ron Paul squeaked out a second straw-poll victory, and Donald Trump drew libertarian ire. Mark McKinnon on CPAC's 2012 forecasts.

02.12.11 9:30 PM ET

At the auditions for Conservative Idol 2012, also known as the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend in Washington, D.C., some contenders pitched hard but fell flat, while others hit perfect notes and were rewarded with rock-star receptions from the record crowd.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the Sanjaya of presidential candidates—with a fevered but limited libertarian fanbase—won the straw-poll vote for the second year running. But the CPAC straw poll is not historically predictive. Other more likely contestants for the final two on the GOP ticket tested their messages, finding their rhythm and groove.

Headliners included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN), and Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS). And other crowd pleasers: Donald Trump, who riled Ron Paul fans saying Paul cannot get elected (but neither can “The Donald”), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Though fan votes carry more weight, for judges’ scoring, see Politico’s report card.

The showcase featured more voices from the heartland than the Beltway. Most were in perfect harmony, with fiscal issues the primary motif. In recognition of the Tea Party movement’s influence and this week’s tango lessons, a familiar refrain resonated: The federal government should focus on doing well only what the federal government should be doing, but otherwise “get off our backs, and out of our pockets." And as Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) said with swagger, “Get the hell out of our way.”

Tim Pawlenty offered a surprisingly high-energy performance, and some refreshing honesty in response to questioning by CPAC bloggers. Pawlenty acknowledged that he once supported cap-and-trade legislation but has since changed his position. "Almost everybody who's running has a similar problem," Pawlenty said. "I think if you look under the hood you'll see that I, like everybody else potentially running, looked at it, flirted with it, and then decided it was a bad idea."  A successful two-term governor, Pawlenty has a down-to-earth, blue-collar appeal, but is an underdog on a stage crowded with bigger names.

A similar unknown, Mitch Daniels, began his CPAC address with self-deprecating light humor, but then offered a studied and serious address on the dangers of the nation’s fiscal failures. “It is the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink,” Daniels said. “If a foreign power advanced an army to the border of our land, everyone in this room would drop everything and look for a way to help. We would set aside all other agendas and disputes as secondary, and go to the ramparts until the threat was repelled. That is what those of us here, and every possible ally we can persuade to join us, are now called to do.” Preaching to the choir, Daniels, nicknamed “The Blade” for his cost-cutting, presents quite a policy and personality contrast with President Obama.

Though attended by a Sarah Palin lookalike, who caused quite a flurry, the former Alaska governor herself did not attend, nor did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But among CPAC’s fresh faces and voices were gay Republican group GOProud, Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), and Rep. Allen West (R-FL), the limited-government constitutional warrior who closed out the conference and absolutely rocked the house.

As Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) said with swagger, “Get the hell out of our way.”

The GOP’s narrative architecture that won in 2010 will return in 2012 with messaging around the top issues: the economy, jobs, spending, the proper role of government, and a growing concern about international instability. Conservatives are united in limiting President Obama to one term. And Obama is vulnerable. In a CNN poll, 51 percent predict he will lose. But to whom?

Keeping it real, the 2012 contest has months to go. No Conservative Idol contestant will be sent home this week, for one speech at CPAC does not win the title. No one hurt their chances, but a few performances stood out, and CPAC begins to give clarity to who the frontrunners will be and what their messages will sound like:

1. Mitch Daniels
Serious message. Serious candidate. Largely unknown to the public, but inside buzz getting hot.

2. Mitt Romney
In a conventional season, he'd be a lock. But his Massachusetts health=care bill is gonna wrap his axle.

3. Mike Huckabee
If he gets in, he'll be top tier.

4. Newt Gingrich
The intellectual bomb-thrower is back.

5. Tim Pawlenty
Sharpening up message and operation. Points for effort but still has difficulty exciting anyone.

6. John Huntsman
Good general-election candidate if he can get through primaries.

7. Haley Barbour
Savvy vet, needs to start showing some leg.

8. John Thune
Plum Senate assignments may be diminishing his appetite.

9. Sarah Palin
Miserable couple months, but just hired a chief of staff to tighten up the operation.

10. Tie: Ron Paul and Donald Trump
Lit 'em up at CPAC as usual. But The Donald told the truth: Paul can't win.

Runner Up: Rick Santorum
Couldn't fill the CPAC auditorium. Could strike in Iowa, but that's it. Can't win.

The VP List

1. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
2. Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ)
3. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA)
4. Jeb Bush
5. Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.