How to make a splash at CPAC
Despite the boycott efforts of certain social conservatives, thousands of conservatives will amass in D.C. beginning Thursday for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). This is the first of many opportunities for conservatives to size up the 2012 presidential candidates and for the media to observe conservatives sizing up the 2012 field. Will Mitt Romney get through a speech without addressing RomneyCare? Will the crowd warm to Tim Pawlenty? Will Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) break out of the pack of unknowns?
CPAC has not generally been a predictor of the GOP presidential primary. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was no CPAC darling and did not attend the gathering the year before the 2008 race. Nevertheless, he went on to grab the nomination. But this does not mean CPAC is insignificant. To the contrary, in a year in which the race is wide open, the candidates have an opportunity to begin to define themselves.
Romney's task is simple: Present an argument to confront his major weakness (RomneyCare) or, alternatively, carve out a theme so impressive and decisive that health care becomes a handicap but not a fatal issue for him.
For Pawlenty the challenge is to show that he can light a room on fire. Without going negative at this early stage he has to begin to define himself as the "not Romney" choice. He need not mention Romney by name, but he needs to lay out his case, namely, "You're not the conservative to take on Obama if you've championed a health-care plan that coerces Americans to buy insurance they don't want."
Pawlenty, Thune and others will help their cause by making a connection to social conservatives (those who have not taken their marbles and gone home). This is not simply a message of fidelity to social conservatives' issues. Rather, it is the beginning of a courtship, a process of conveying to a key group within the Republican primary electorate that they do more than "check the box" on the social agenda. That's the bare minimum. But to capture this constituency a contender will need to convey that he shares with them a perception of America and America's place in the world. Greatly underestimated is the degree to which foreign policy -- support for Israel, understanding of the Islamist threat, recognition of America's leadership in the world -- is central to evangelicals and values voters. They are not hiring an accountant to balance the books; rather they are looking for a conservative who can champion a restoration of American values and project America's influence in the world.
As with so much else in primary politics it matters far less who wins the tally (in this case, a straw poll) than who exceeds expectations. It is not by any means a decisive event; but it is the first of many that will shape the race.
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