WASHINGTON — We have reached the dazed and confused phase of the 2012 campaign: Frontrunner Mitt Romney is dazed and anyone who tries to handicap the GOP race from here on is confused. Against the backdrop of a Republican nomination fight certain to last until the March 6 Super Tuesday primaries — and quite likely well beyond — the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) could not have come at a better time. Friday was the moment for all three remaining plausible GOP nominees (Romney, Rick Santorum and the wobbly Newt Gingrich) to renew their sales pitches at a Washington convention hotel filled with right-wing firebrands ranging in age from college Republicans to septuagenarian spear carriers from the 1964 Barry Goldwater uprising.
Normally, at this stage of the campaign, formal speeches in vast hotel ballrooms have been supplanted by 30-second TV spots and debate performances. But with the GOP race upended by Santorum's three-state sweep last Tuesday, the candidates understood that CPAC provided their last major opportunity to deliver an extended argument before the avalanche of late winter primaries. Much of their language was designed to stir this conservative audience. Santorum, for example, declared, "We should recognize, as conservatives and Tea Party folks, that we are not just wings of the Republican Party. We are the Republican Party." (Like all good political rhetoric, the Santorum line was inadvertently borrowed: During the run-up to the 2004 primaries, Howard Dean inspired liberals by claiming to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.")
Beyond the political hucksterism that shaped the TV clips and morning-after newspaper headlines, the three candidates provided glimpses of strikingly different approaches to the presidency. These fleeting pictures of a Republican in the Oval Office in 2013 consisted of more than just boilerplate pledges to rescind Barack Obama's health-care reforms and quixotic promises like Romney's "I will finally balance the American budget." Even if they agree on the broad strokes of issues positions, Santorum, Romney and Gingrich offer the Republicans a choice of conservative leadership styles. And the CPAC speeches underscored the stakes for GOP voters as the topsy-turvy nomination fight moves from a handful of early states to a national canvas.
Rick Santorum: The jobs conservative
As a full-throated social conservative, the former Pennsylvania senator was as much in his element at CPAC as George Soros is at Davos. Unlike Romney (who supported abortion rights until — shazam! — he didn't) or Gingrich (who aspires to be the only twice-divorced president in history), Santorum does not have to worry about airbrushing his image with conservatives. "We know each other," Santorum said at the beginning of a key passage in his address to CPAC. "We've worked together in the vineyards. We have taken on the tough battles that confront this country."
These words were a prelude to a job-creation topic rarely publicly discussed in a presidential campaign: Who will be hired for the White House staff, the Cabinet and the sub-Cabinet if Santorum is elected? Most newly elected presidents strive to be inclusive—like Obama choosing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and keeping Republican holdover Robert Gates at the Pentagon. Ronald Reagan not only tapped primary rival George Bush as his running mate, but he also named Bush's campaign manager James Baker as his first White House chief of staff. Even George W. Bush, far more ideological than his father, selected centrist Colin Powell to be secretary of state.
Santorum at CPAC signaled a litmus-test approach to staffing his would-be administration. Belittling unnamed appointees from prior GOP administrations who scoffed at ideological fidelity, Santorum promised, "As president of the United States, we will surround ourselves in this administration with people who share our values, who are committed to the principles that made this country great — leaders of the great conservative movement."
Leaving aside Santorum's use of the royal "we" in the prior sentence, and the long odds against his ever making it to the Oval Office except as a visitor, it was telling that he chose to make this pledge before CPAC. This was not a speech line that launched a thousand tweets or will be excerpted in a TV commercial. But it is clear that Santorum — probably during his long and lonely months touring rural Iowa as the ultimate GOP underdog — has thought about this staffing issue. He pointedly quoted conservative direct-mail king Richard Viguerie's shrewd line about the presidency, "Policies are personnel." And in an implicit jab at Romney, Santorum stressed the importance of "knowing the people who … bring the wellspring of ideas to conservatism." Listening to Santorum's words, I wondered how many right-wing idea mavens in the audience at CPAC began fantasizing about their West Wing offices.
Mitt Romney: The shape-shifting conservative
Some days it's hard not to be impressed with Romney's dogged, pooch-on-the-roof, determination to get it right with the right. In his speech text, put up on his website before he spoke at CPAC, Romney described himself as "a conservative governor." But when he actually delivered the remarks, Romney switched it to "I was a severely conservative Republican governor." It is a weird linguistic formulation like a Democratic politician describing himself as "loosely liberal."
This awkwardness reflects Romney's awareness that — certainly compared to Santorum and Gingrich — he is a Mitt-fit as a standard-issue movement conservative. Speaking directly to the hundreds of college students in the audience at CPAC, Romney speculated, "My guess is that some of you got here by reading [Edmund] Burke and [Friedrich] Hayek." In contrast, Romney said, "When I was your age, you could've told me that they were infielders for the Detroit Tigers." Rarely in one speech riff will a Republican presidential candidate confess both his lack of understanding of the intellectual roots of conservatism and the gaps in his record as a baseball fan.
The argument that Romney made to CPAC is that his ideological journey to the right "came from my family, from my faith and from my life's work." Ignoring his pioneering health-care legislation, Romney recast his record in Massachusetts as "defending conservative principles in the most liberal state in the nation." The one-term former governor bragged, "If there was a program or an agency or a department that needed cutting or elimination, we did it."
In reality, Romney was not nearly so severely conservative a governor. As Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman point out in their new biography, The Real Romney, "His cuts to the state bureaucracy, however, turned out to be fairly modest. After four years, he reduced the payroll of agencies under his direct control by 603 jobs, according to his administration's tally." At this rate of downsizing government, Romney would have to serve more than fifteen hundred years as president to trim the federal work force by 10 percent.
Don't misunderstand: Romney would probably be a very conservative president. It would not be because of his prior record in Massachusetts nor even his guiding ideology, but instead because of all the promises Romney will have made to get the GOP nomination. At CPAC, Romney pledged that as president, "I will not be cutting the military budget." Gingrich, in contrast, often describes himself as a "cheap hawk" to underscore that he is concerned about military effectiveness rather than budgetary line items. But Romney was using a formulation that he never would have employed in business to prove his conservative bona fides; imagine the man from Bain Capital vowing never to reduce the marketing budget for Staples whether the company needed it or not. All this leads to the assumption that a President Romney would always be worried about a 2016 primary challenge from his right flank, much as Pat Buchanan bedeviled George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Newt Gingrich: The sand-trap conservative
Facing the indignity of being reduced once again to a Banquo-esque ghostly figure in the GOP race, with Santorum soaring as the anti-Romney candidate, Gingrich deployed his wife Callista in an uncharacteristic speaking role at CPAC. "Newt is an enthusiastic and committed golfer," she said, proudly introducing her husband. "He gets in and out of more sand traps than anyone I've ever seen."
Callista Gingrich may have meant this joking reference to her husband's lack of athletic prowess as a way of humanizing the former House speaker. But it also works as a metaphor to describe the trajectory of Gingrich's erratic quest for the nomination — and quite likely the contours of his would-be presidency. Like his Democratic counterpoint Bill Clinton, Gingrich is at his best politically when he has to dig himself out of the sand trap and at his worst when he is standing triumphant on the green as his ball drops into the cup.
Say what you will about a GOP field dominated by Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, with Ron Paul still offering libertarian brickbats from the sidelines. In stylistic terms, it does offer GOP voters — as Barry Goldwater once famously put it — a choice not an echo.
Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.
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