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CPAC 2011: Spring Training for Republican Campaign Metaphors

4 years ago
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Using a (gasp!) liberal definition of politically plausible, 10 Republican White House dreamers -- ranging from Michele Bachmann to Haley Barbour -- have featured speaking parts at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference beginning Thursday in Washington.

So what if the Republicans, showing rare reticence, have yet to begin the over-choreographed rollout of candidate announcements? Frustrated by the lack of candidate caravans canvassing all 99 counties of Iowa, the restive press pack is poised to treat the three-day CPAC meeting as the first step in the marathon that will climax with the exuberant Republican presidential nominee bathed in confetti at the 2012 Tampa Convention.

Impressionable political mavens may become overly excited by the results of Saturday's CPAC straw poll. After all, could there be a more statistically valid way to gauge national Republican sentiment than through an election with a hefty poll tax ($175 for a three-day ticket) held in a Washington hotel in the middle of the snowiest winter in memory?

Despite the unreliability of straw polls, there is, however, an enduring value to early GOP cattle shows (a phrase that only entered the political lexicon in the late 1970s). These round-robin speak-a-thons provide a first airing of the Republican rhetoric that will become the building blocks of stump speeches, debate answers and 30-second TV spots. What CPAC represents, in effect, is spring training for campaign metaphors.

Not even candidates who ran in 2008 like Mitt Romney, book-tour pros like Tim Pawlenty and veteran stem-winders like Newt Gingrich have their routines down yet. Everything is still a work in progress. Anti-Obama jokes that fall flat, policy pronouncements that veer towards the wonky, and self-deprecating stories that come across as oddball rather than endearing will soon be dropped from the set speeches. This is the moment in the campaign when a white-shirted would-be president has an uncanny similarity to T-shirted standup comic – both are honing their acts through constant practice in front of live audiences.

A warning to the unwary: Campaign rhetoric at this stage is entirely about running for president rather than being president.

Denouncing Barack Obama, as beguiling as it is for Republicans to hear, is not a governing agenda. At the beginning of the presidential race, it can be stipulated that any Republican elected president in 2012 would dismantle the Obama health care plan and would veto any attempt by Congress to increase taxes. That is Republican orthodoxy -- and no serious contender for the GOP nomination would dare depart from it.

In fact, it is a safe bet that the louder the applause at CPAC, the less relevant the triggering sentence is to the presidency. There are litmus-test issues for conservatives just as there are for liberals. So the hotel chandeliers will rattle from the cheers following every paean to constitutional government, every promise to uphold Second Amendment rights and every pledge to curb judicial activism. At a moment when the tea party movement is riding high, every Republican presidential hopeful will stress that he or she became a Ronald Reagan-worshipping conservative while hurtling down the birth canal.

Since the next president (or a reelected Obama) will not take office until January 2013, it is premature to get caught up in overly detailed prescriptions for the ailing economy. Remember at this point in 2007, presidential contenders in both parties were blithely assuming that the boom times would carry over to their tenure in the White House. The 21st century reality is that things can and will change faster than you can utter the fateful words, "collapse of Lehman Brothers." An obvious downside of a 20-month presidential race is that candidates begin running long before anyone knows what issues will dominate the election-eve agenda.

Make no mistake: There will be things worth listening to at the CPAC cattle show.

The challenge for all presidential candidates is to package their autobiographies in ways that provide a compelling glimpse of how they would handle a four-year lease on the Oval Office. For veteran political figures like Newt Gingrich, it is highlighting which aspects of their long careers make them viable in 2012. For the five current and former governors on the CPAC agenda (Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels and Rick Perry), it is making the transition from state issues to national concerns. As for Michele Bachmann (and half-forgotten former U.N. ambassador John Bolton), the trick lies in convincing party activists that they would be serious contenders rather than irrelevant gadflies.

An obvious upside of the lengthy presidential race is that early stumbles are not necessarily fatal. (Prime example: The mid-2007 collapse of John McCain's campaign). That is the joy of these early cattle shows -- the stakes are still low despite the coiled tension of campaign aides and the overly definitive verdicts of the press corps.

Far more important than issues at this stage is for Republicans to begin to identify which candidates they can endure to see and hear on their TV screens campaigning for the next two years – and which candidates would lift their hearts if they ever got to take the oath of office.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter (lucky you).

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