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.

So that left, for the afternoon session, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty to trot out what sounded like test-runs of likely arguments for likely 2012 bids. Romney used the opportunity to blast Obama, though of course he also has been doing that for a while.

Obama's message to America was "it could be worse," Romney charged, quipping, to applause and laughter, "What's next, let them eat cake? Excuse me, let them eat organic cake?"

"How difficult is it to take office in the middle of a raging economic crisis and realize the economy should be your number one priority?" asked Romney.

Laced in with his criticisms of Obama for failing to focus on the economy -- an argument Romney also made in his National Press Club appearance last March -- was a newer message of optimism that's also Romney's latest sticker (really, you can tell what the theme of any campaign is by the stickers, and this is the one his Free and Strong America PAC was handing out in the conference exhibitors hall): "Believe in America."

"I refuse to believe America is just another place on the map with a flag. We are an exceptional land," he said at one point. "Believe in America. Our freedom depends on it," he concluded his remarks.

His biggest applause line also seemed plug for the paperback version of his most recent book. "I will not and I will never apologize for America!'' said the author of 2010's "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness."

To sync with the new message, it's been retitled "No Apology: Believe in America."

"Let me be clear, if I decide to run for president, it wouldn't take me two years to wake up to the economic crisis," said Romney.

Just so there was no question about his ambitions, "I, for one, would like to see him lead the country as president," noted wife Ann Romney introducing him.

A grandmother of 16, she looked smashing in a short-sleeved dress and beads that seemed to echo Michelle Obama's fashion choices -- a change from the rich older lady suits she was partial to in the last cycle.

Pawlenty, for his part, seemed to betting that we have not seen the last of the trouble in Egypt, and that the internal dynamics of Egyptian society are such that should it have free and fair elections before America next does, America -- or rather, GOP caucus and early primary state voting Americans -- will not much like the outcome.

His reddest meat was reserved for the foreign policy arena.

"Mr. President, bullies respect strength," he said, "they don't respect weakness. So when the United States of America projects its national security interests here and around the world, we need to do it with strength. We need to make sure that there is no equivocation, no uncertainty, no daylight between us and our allies around the world."

Obama, whom Pawlenty compared to former president Jimmy Carter, was appeasing those who would do America harm, he said.

"We undermine Israel, the U.K., Poland, Czech Republic, Colombia, amongst other of our friends. Meanwhile, we appease Iran, Russia, and adversaries in the Middle East, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood," he charged.

"Mr. President, with bullies, might makes right. Strength makes them submit. We need to get tough on our enemies -- not on our friends. And, Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country," he said.

As with Romney, that was a major applause line, though Pawlenty's book is titled "Courage to Stand: An American Story."

"The bullies, terrorists and tyrants of the world have lots to apologize for. America does not," he said.