Replicant Media, Undeclared Candidates and the CPAC Battle to Define a 2012 Message

If there has been a single event that has laid bare the bizarre quality of contemporary journalism more than the Conservative Political Action Conference, I've yet to attend it. More even than the Republican National Committee's Winter Meeting, where Chairman Michael Steele lost his reelection bid and several rows of reporters dressed in near identical garb dutifully tweeted out seven rounds of vote totals, CPAC has made plain the dynamics what I've come to think of "replicant journalism," where the crush of reporters competing to rapidly and electronically disseminate even the smallest thimbleful of information outstrips any general interest in the information at hand, and also makes each reporter the starting point in a great chain of replication, as their words are variously retweeted, shared, blockquoted, linked or uploaded along down the long tail of the nicheified online media world.

Sit too close to the starting point of the great chain of replication, though, and it can be dizzying. "Thanks to Twitter, I'm thoroughly confused abt #Egypt - but I have 17-source confirmation of Newt's CPAC theme song," tweeted National Journal reporter Jim Tankersley Thursday.

2012, in short, is going to be a total zoo.

The presidential primary contest may be starting later than usual -- the same day CPAC started, Obama supporters celebrated the four-year anniversary of his Springfield, Ill., presidential announcement -- but the sort of one-car caravan that Walter Shapiro wrote about in his 2003 book on the once actually invisible invisible primary no longer seems remotely imaginable. I guess it was a vanishing world even then.

Into the maw of this new media machine came the possible GOP contenders, holding themselves back from its fierce scrutiny by refusing to formally declare their intentions while nonetheless parading before an audience of thousands at CPAC. If Thursday's sessions gave voice to the big personalities -- Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, New Gingrich and Donald Trump -- Friday was all about the more traditional political men, with their more traditional meins.

Sen. John Thune, a tall trim man whose face seems to have started falling in on itself since winning a senate seat from South Dakota just six years ago, gave a series of unremarkable remarks that caused many to wonder if he's really got it in his heart to run for the presidency. He was "coming to the final stages" of a decision on a bid, he told reporters before his appearance, which he opened with a joke about his low public profile.

"It's fair to say I don't have the same national name recognition as some of my Republican colleagues," said Thune. "I've never had a book signing. I've been to Iowa many times, but only on my way to South Dakota. The closest I've ever been on a reality show is C-SPAN's coverage of the Senate Floor. "

His speech seemed calculated to do little to raise that profile.

Ron Paul, the long-time Texas congressman, gave a fiery speech again laying out his by now well-known isolationist, anti-government political philosophy. He was treated as a rock star by the hordes of young libertarians at the conference, some pierced about the nose and lip, their presence amplified by the absence of the traditional values groups who chose to boycott the conference over its inclusion of small gay conservative group GOProud.

But even the fervor Paul generated in 2008 was not enough to help him win the Iowa caucuses, at once the easiest organizing win for an outsider candidate (see: Huckabee, Mike), and one of the hardest for all comers. His troops are loud, they are good at being an overwhelming presence at conferences, they are colorful and mediagenic, they cheer and boo, they push stories about Paul far higher in the daily online traffic reports than one might expect. But as Trump noted Thursday, they will not be enough to win him a presidency -- or a presidential nomination.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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