CPAC's Opening Day Is Haunted by the Ghosts of Candidates Past

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The annual conservative confab hears the also-rans' excuses -- and tries to summon enthusiasm for those still in the field.

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The opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicked off Thursday in Washington, was devoted to failed presidential candidates of the not-quite-distant-enough past, who tested the audience's capacity for instant nostalgia with rueful jokes about their defunct campaigns.

"I thought you would be interested in knowing that running for president of the United States is really one series of humiliations after another," said a beaming Michele Bachmann, looking tanned and rested. "But it's also a very educational experience."

Bachmann proceeded to reference some of her own humiliations in the spotlight's glare. "I learned three things," she said. "First of all, I learned where John Wayne was born. Second, I learned the day Elvis Presley was born -- these are vital issues for our republic! And third, I learned: Never forget the three things that you learned."

That last one was a dig at Rick Perry, the Texas governor who was in the race to make all the other candidates feel brighter and more articulate. Perry, speaking a couple of hours after Bachmann, had his own take on his erstwhile presidential effort.

"Aggies never lose -- we just run out of time," he said, referring to his alma mater, Texas A&M University. "You could say my presidential campaign just ran out of time."

Perry devoted his speech to his favorite part of the Bill of Rights -- the states' rights part -- without mentioning the candidate he has endorsed, Newt Gingrich.

"A candidate I am no more, but a committed Tenth Amendment conservative I will be until the last breath I draw!" he said.

Gingrich also went unmentioned by the third former candidate to speak, Herman Cain. Cain, who also endorsed his fellow Georgian, was too busy exuberantly expressing his support for Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher, the 2008 campaign minicelebrity who's now a congressional candidate in Ohio. Wurzelbacher, he explained (without attempting to pronounce his actual last name), had embraced Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan.

Cain's reflections on his campaign were more serious than Bachmann or Perry's. "There are two reasons I dropped out of the race," he said. "Gutter politics, and number two, I chose to put family first."

While Bachmann devoted her speech to foreign policy and Perry to the threat of an overweening federal government, the recitation of "9-9-9" was the extent of the policy content in Cain's speech.

The more consequential speeches will come Friday, when three of the four remaining presidential candidates are scheduled to speak: Rick Santorum, fresh off his surprise triple victory in Tuesday's votes; Mitt Romney, trying to regain his equilibrium after his losses to Santorum; and Gingrich.

The fourth candidate, Ron Paul, is skipping CPAC this year in favor of campaigning in Maine, having won the conference's straw poll for the last two years and gotten precisely nothing to show for it.

Gingrich and Santorum had volunteers out in force at the annual festival, whose large contingent of College Republican attendees gives it a party vibe. Santorum's stickering effort was particularly aggressive; he also had a booth selling his signature sweater vests for $50 a piece.

There was little enthusiasm for Romney on display among the attendees, but also little outright antagonism. Many seemed to have already resigned themselves to his inevitable nomination prior to Tuesday's Santorum comeback.

Others, though, relished Romney's setback.

"The whole momentum, inevitable narrative -- it's false. It's crap," said Eric McGrane, a 42-year-old IT manager from Chesterfield, Va. He was leaning toward Santorum, though only as the best remaining alternative -- he was troubled by the "bad votes" on the former senator's record.

"I think, of the current candidates, he's been more consistent," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm head over heels."

Image: Win McNamee / Getty Images

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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