12 Hours at CPAC, the 'Mardi Gras of the Right'

Santorum was the star attraction at the confab, but he had a lot of competition from the sideshow at the annual festival of conservative thinking.

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Just when things were beginning to drag a bit at yesterday's Conservative Political Action Conference -- dubbed "the Mardi Gras of the Right" by the American Spectator -- Occupy D.C. showed up, and the future of American conservatism, several thousand strong, wandered out onto the front lawn of the Marriott Wardman Park to sneak a cigarette and catch a bit of the action. Protesters pounded the pavement in front of a jumbo inflatable "fat cat," complete with fangs and three-piece suit, which had its paws around the neck of an inflatable Joe American. Teamsters, U.A.W. members, and Occupiers surged up the driveway. The police closed in. Taunts sailed back and forth over their heads.

Rebecca DiFede, a CPAC participant with a silver business card case and pink tongue stud, watched from the sidelines. "I just saw Ann Coulter speak," she said. "She opened with, 'Hello one-percenters. Welcome to Occupy the Marriott.'"

As we strolled back inside, DiFede said that she understood the economic frustrations at the heart of Occupy. She graduated from American University this spring: "It's astonishing to see how many of my classmates are out of jobs. Unemployment for our age demographic is something in the upper forty percent." (In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among 20-24 year olds is 14.2 percent, and 59.9 percent are employed.)

I asked DiFede whether she sees any shared blood between Occupiers and Tea Partiers. "The Tea Party movement is usually made up of well-educated, regular people who take time from their jobs or families to go and try to make something better," she said. "These people -- not to put people down, but -- when I went there, they were vagrants and drug addicts. People without jobs who said they'd been out of work for months. They'd just been sitting in McPherson Square. How is that helping you get a job? No one's going to come down and interview you in your tent."

* * *

CPAC, like most political conventions, has the feel of an indoor state fair, with fewer fried cheese curds, more speechifying, and plenty of chances to score free knickknacks: beer koozies (courtesy of the American Conservative Union), tiny rubber fetuses (Human Life International), and sunglasses (Google). There are more than 5,000 attendees at the confab, which wraps up Saturday evening, along with hundreds of reporters from the "lamestream" media. When the crowd gets on its feet in the main ballroom -- which it does, often -- the place just howls.

When I arrived at 8:15 a.m. Friday to grab my credentials, many CPACers were still sleeping off the previous night's festivities. The hotel's exhibition hall was deserted, save for Edward Newland, who was dutifully manning the Newt 2012 booth. He'd been on his feet most of the last 24 hours, but he cheerfully walked me through a chart comparing Gingrich to the competition. Result: Newt wins.

Newland is a political science grad student and campaign volunteer in northern Virginia -- a state where Gingrich isn't even on the primary ballot, owing to his failure to collect enough signatures. This is a sore point. "I don't want to have to vote for Mitt Romney or Ron Paul," he said, referring to the two candidates who are on the ballot. "That's no choice at all. That's like, which one of my legs do I want to chop off?"

Paul won't be appearing at this year's CPAC, to the surprise (and dismay) of many. He typically makes a strong showing here, and for two years running, he's won the convention's straw poll. Word is, Newland confided, that Paul's campaign usually scores cheap tickets, stacks the crowd with young boots, and runs away with the vote. This year, no dice.

Instead, Rick Santorum seems to have the largest army of dewy-eyed ephebes. A few hours after he appeared onstage with his beaming wife and kids, Santorum held a meet-and-greet in the Wilson Room. The line to get in the door made a complete loop around the mezzanine balcony, and then wrapped in on itself. If he had stayed for the whole thing, it would have taken Santorum until Saturday morning to shake all these folks' hands. Even so, they waited. One volunteer said she took a red-eye from L.A. just to be here and pitch in.

In line, Loren Spivack, free market warrior, sold copies of his "Cat in the Hat" parody, The New Democrat, which features Obama as the sly, toothy cat, wearing a Soviet-style cap emblazoned with hammer and sickle. (Glenn Beck plays the anxious fish.) The rhymes are pretty catchy, actually. The book ends with America racing full speed ahead toward government rationing, death panels, &c.

Half an hour later, the line to see Santorum had barely budged.

* * *

At lunch, I plopped down in the hotel lobby next to the Shadrix family, up from Raleigh, N.C., as they tucked into Chipotle burritos. They capture the CPAC demographic pretty well -- white, well-educated, strong Christian values, happy to chat with a perfect stranger. Tom wore a red sweater vest, Wendy a red argyle cardigan, and their eldest, Shawn, a red paisley button-down. Shawn and his father are CPAC veterans, and none too broken up about Ron Paul's no-show. "They're pretty disruptive," said Tom of Paul's supporters. "I don't know how he's doing that as an older gentleman, how he's mesmerizing this group." He also wasn't too keen on Romney breaking "Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment: 'Don't blast your fellow Republicans.'" Santorum speaks to their traditional values, added Wendy.

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Kevin Charles Redmon is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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