Though some conservatives are declaring that last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was “wildly successful,” this year’s annual gathering of movement conservatives has actually exposed “lingering divisions on the right.” In a Fox News interview on Saturday, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee questioned the “credibility” of the event, accusing it of being “a pay-for-play” because “of the way that it solicits sponsors.” Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin also criticized CPAC’s set-up, refusing to appear because she reportedly views it as “pocketbook over policy.”
But the biggest rift occurred around the prominence of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his libertarian supporters. According to the Washington Independent’s Dave Weigel, after CPAC organizers announced that Paul had won the presidential straw poll with 31 percent of the vote, “mainstream GOP activists and traditional conservative thinkers” were looking for excuses:
Just as relieved were mainstream GOP activists and traditional conservative thinkers who were pondering ways to make the party electable again. “I think Mitt Romney’s 22 percent was impressive,” said Rob Willington, a Massachusetts Republican strategist who’d designed GOTV technology for now-Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). He was reflecting on the poll — not too significant, he said — in Murphy’s, a bar a few blocks from the hotel, late Saturday. Romney’s forces, he said, hadn’t lifted a finger; Paul’s had campaigned for the prize.
In another corner of the bar, conservative author David Frum, editor of Frum Forum (formerly New Majority), brushed off the result. “The Paul people all voted and the others didn’t,” said Frum. “I’m hoping it’s a matter of self-selection.”
The importance of minimizing Paul’s win united conservative activists like almost nothing else that came from the three-day conference. Even Brad Dayspring — who, as a spokesman for GOP whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), counts on Paul for “no” votes — fired off two tweets dismissing the result. But the 2,395 ballots cast were a CPAC record, up from the 1,757 cast in 2009, when Mitt Romney scored his third conservative win.
On his radio show yesterday, hate radio host Rush Limbaugh decried Paul’s win as well:
RUSH: All I’ll tell you is that any organization that has a straw poll vote on who the party presidential candidate ought to be and comes up with Ron Paul is not an organization of conservatives. I just tell you. Something’s haywire there. I know the Ron Paul people go in there, but they had been attendees to get in there. Ron Paul winning a straw poll at a conservative conference?
Huckabee also claimed that Paul’s win challenged the conservative credentials of CPAC, saying “that Ron Paul winning the straw poll was an indicator that CPAC was taking a more libertarian flavor.” The tension between Paul-supporting libertarians and social conservatives like Huckabee was on full display Saturday when a Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) activist responded harshly to positive words from a Paul supporter about CPAC’s inclusion of the conservative gay group GOProud. “I want to condemn CPAC for bringing GOProud to this event,” said YAF’s Ryan Sorba after Students for Liberty’s Alexander McCobin praised the American Conservative Union for “welcoming GOProud as a co-sponsor.”
Jed Lewison put together a compilation of Fox News hosts and guests attempting to spin away Paul’s win as insignificant.