Rules Of Attraction

At CPAC, Republican Candidates Are Courting Their Base

At the conservative conclave, everyone from Oliver North to Chuck Woolery says they're still shopping for their man. Which candidates are making a love connection with the base?

02.10.12 9:45 AM ET

The Conservative Political Action Conference—which brought 10,000-odd true believers to Washington Thursday to bash Barack Obama and hash over the fate of the Republican Party—offered a well-attended seminar on "Conservative Dating,” as in male-female relations. But the more pressing question looming over the 39th annual confab known as CPAC was: which Republican presidential candidate should conservatives be dating?

With the exception of Ron Paul, who sent his senatorial son Rand to romance the throng (and the ungrateful wretch didn’t even mention his dad and instead took the love for himself), all the suitors were on the schedule of the three-day conference—sponsored by the American Conservative Union—in advance of Saturday’s straw poll.

“He’s like Spock reading a love letter—he says the right things but has trouble showing emotion,” lamented National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg during a panel discussion.

Actually, the former Massachusetts governor and leveraged-buyout mogul seems to have more problematic issues with this crowd. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, current Fox News host and former Senate candidate in Virginia, wouldn’t even affirm that Romney is a conservative.

“I don’t know. I never met the man,” North told me when I asked if the on-and-off-again frontrunner is a bona fide believer.

What about Rick Santorum?

“Oh, yeah,” he answered eagerly. (More than a few CPAC attendees professed affection for the former Pennsylvania senator, who addresses the convention Friday morning.

“Absolutely,” North replied, noting that he’s for Gingrich. “Look, I got a lot of criticism from friends who gathered in Houston here a few weeks back to endorse someone else,” he went on, referring to the meeting of evangelicals who ended up supporting Santorum, “but Newt and I have been friends for 20 years. My answer was, I told Newt two years ago that if he ran, I would support him…. The words semper fidelis mean something to me.

Social conservative Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, echoed the former colonel’s Romney-averse skepticism.

“I think people in this gathering feel warmly toward Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, to some degree—even, historically, Ron Paul [who came in first in last year’s straw poll]—but I think the harder sell here is going to be for Mitt Romney. That’s why this is still wide open. After last Tuesday, he’s not coming here to close the deal. I think he’s still trying to convince people to let him in the door to present his wares.”

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Even Mitt-friendly political consultant Ralph Reed, the architect of Pat Robertson’s once-powerful Christian Coalition, referred to him as man “with a message as an economic turnaround artist”—not a descriptor calculated to generate much enthusiasm with the base.

“Mitt Romney—how can I put this?—I think he’s trying to become president of the United States, just like Barack Obama was,” said Ohio congressional candidate Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher (and what Republican get-together could be complete without Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher?). “A lot of them, unfortunately, say a lot of things. It’s a game being played, with branding and messaging, and ‘hopefully the American people will forget what I did 20 years ago.’ Unfortunately, there is a record you can look at—so you kind of hope for the best.”

As usual, this year’s CPAC is a mix of polemics and commerce—with all the expected broadsides against gun control, abortion, taxes, Obama’s “war on religion,” federal intrusion, and so on. As leading lights like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the stage in the Marriott Wardman ballroom to hate on Obama and the allegedly socialist dictatorship he’s planning for his second term, vendors filled the exhibit halls to sell such products as “The Great American Tea Party Game,” and “The New Democrat by Dr. Truth,” an anti-Obama parody of Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat.” (“I know you are poor/ And the outlook’s not sunny,/ But we can have fun/ With other people’s money!”)

DeMint, the godfather of the Tea Party movement, was surprisingly subdued, giving a professorial speech on the evils of Obama’s deficit-spending. But Kentuckian McConnell tossed gobbets of blood-red meat to the ravenous herd, inveighing against the president and his “liberal thugs.” Yet when it came to down-and-dirty rhetoric, columnist Cal Thomas surpassed everybody: during a panel discussion of the White House, the Catholic Church, and birth control, he took this shot at liberal-lesbian MSNBC host Rachel Maddow: “I think she is the best argument for her parents using contraception.”

Even some of the conference-goers winced at that one.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Pasha Roberts touted Silver Circle, an animated futuristic feature about a violent war between the citizenry and the Federal Reserve, and retired game-show host Chuck Woolery haunted Radio Row—the right-wing talk jocks doing their programs from the exhibit hall—in order to promote his new advocacy group, Restart Congress.

“We’re trying to get all these guys to go home and replace them with new people,” said the former host of The Love Connection, who was taking a break from bass fishing in Texas to attend his first CPAC.

Speaking of love, the conservative-dating seminar might have been a tad off-message but that didn’t deter ample attendance by members of the media elite (to say nothing of around four dozen lonely guys and a smattering of young ladies).

Seminar leader Wayne Elise—the self-avowed “Libertarian Hitch” who claims he charges $5,000 for a day of personalized dating instruction but was doing this one for free—was stylishly unshaven, and dressed in black slacks and black shirt, accented by a wide white belt. “I think he’s going for Tom Cruise in Magnolia,” quipped the Huffington Post’s intrepid Sam Stein.

Elise, 43, who hails from L.A., natch, told his students that political and ideological differences in a relationship are less important than other factors. “I think it’s so small in terms of the normal relationship obstacles that people encounter,” he said, adding that most romances come unglued over issues like who’s going to do the dirty dishes.

Maybe that's good news for Mitt.