WASHINGTON, D.C.—Every year, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist hosts two can’t-miss events that bookend the Conservative Political Action Conference, the premier gathering of the nation’s right-leaning politicians, pundits and activists. One is a pre-conference poker party. The other is a beer-fueled late-night bash at his Capitol Hill townhouse.
Usually, that event doesn’t hit its stride until well into the night. This year, it was barely 9 p.m. when organizers began herding tipsy state reps and starry-eyed college students out into the warm Washington night.
Still reeling from last fall’s epic losses in the House and Senate, the conservatives who showed up weren’t in a particularly festive mood. (Appropriately, perhaps, the biggest news story out of the gathering was the unfortunately timed re-emergence of Ann Coulter, who suggested that Democrat John Edwards was a “faggot.”)
In fact, only one person seemed to come out of the weekend with much to celebrate: Rudy Giuliani, whose strong second-place showing in the CPAC straw poll on March 2—along with a simultaneous photo-finish second-place win in a straw poll in conservative South Carolina, and an enormous lead in a new Newsweek survey—seemed to solidify his surprising position as the man to beat in the G.O.P. Presidential sweepstakes.
But even as Mr. Giuliani scored a symbolic victory with his strong showing at the conference, it was clear that the feelings toward him weren’t so much enthusiasm as resignation. Consistent with a deep distrust of the twice-divorced former mayor among the country’s most prominent social conservatives, activist after activist at the conference lamented that there were just no good options this year, and that Mr. Giuliani simply looked like the most likely winner in an election against Hillary Clinton.
“He’s the only one that can beat her,” said one West Coast radio host, nursing a scotch in the hotel bar after the Norquist party dissolved. “He’s not perfect, but he’s the best we can do.”
Out of Mr. Giuliani’s trifecta of weekend triumphs, last weekend’s CPAC vote was arguably the most important. Sure, straw polls are a fairly meaningless exercise—the D.N.C. had a staffer surreptitiously circling through the national press area at the event with a helpful list of previous “winners” including names like Gary Bauer—but you couldn’t beat this year’s vote for sheer symbolism.
Northeastern social liberals have not traditionally done well in this particular beauty contest. But while CPAC attendees may not have been in love with Mr. Giuliani—their hearts belong to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, and Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado—they seemed, at least, to be fond of his prospects.
“He can win,” said 24-year-old Ember Bishop, who had previously seen the former Mayor during his recent visit to Gainesville, Ga. “He may be the only one who can. And we have to win.”
Of course, it may have helped Mr. Giuliani that his main rival in the polls, Senator John McCain, wasn’t there.
(According to a number of sources involved in organizing the conference, Mr. McCain’s campaign planned to skip the event, then tried to book space at the Omni Shoreham after learning that Mr. Giuliani was attending, then skipped the event anyway. The campaign disputes this account, pointing to the Senator’s prior commitment to attend a fund-raiser in Utah.)
And despite Mr. Giuliani’s strong showing, the conference this weekend served to illustrate some of the logistical shortcomings of his campaign, which only recently hired its first full-time staffer in the crucial primary state of Iowa.
Visitors couldn’t go five feet in the bowels of the Omni Shoreham without running into a smiling volunteer for CPAC straw-poll winner Mitt Romney. The Giuliani campaign didn’t do any visible campaigning at all.
Yes, the light footprint was, at least in part, deliberately contrived. Having no visible organization on hand meant that a strong showing would look a lot like victory. It worked for the national media, which generally took the results as a win for Mr. Giuliani and a loss of sorts for Mr. Romney.
But the hands-off approach left fervent Giuliani supporters at CPAC high and dry, and well-connected converts, in essence, standing at the altar.
The former Mayor’s only visible grassroots effort came from Martha Stamp, a Rhode Island grandmother who spent the weekend sporting a homemade “RUDY” sign taped onto her wide-brimmed straw hat, and from a handful of college students in off-the-rack suits who met on a Rudy Giuliani fan club on Facebook. The group carried handmade signs—“Red Sox Fans for Rudy” and “Ladies ❤ Rudy”—in an epic, vain effort to meet the former Mayor, who was already gone by the time ABC reporter Jake Tapper tracked them down just after his speech.
(“Now, we’re going to turn the camera on—and when I say the Mayor’s name, that’s when you cheer,” he said. “If you want to cheer, of course.”)
“You know how many R.N.C. delegates are here?” asked veteran conservative activist Paul Caprio, as volunteers from rival campaigns tried to out-shout each other outside the exhibit hall and a man in a “Flip Romney” dolphin suit wandered past. “Easily 200 to 300—maybe more. You need to give them a way to get involved. But Rudy has no real grassroots operation just yet. And time is running out.”
Mr. Giuliani was also the only visiting candidate who didn’t make himself available to the talk-show hosts and bloggers based down in the riotous exhibit hall of the hotel, an oversight that had most of them grumbling behind their laptops. “It’s not rocket science,” said conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, surrounded by a sea of rapturous fans. “If you’re trying to win the base, you might try talking to them.”
Then there was his speech. The buildup was promising, with the venue at full capacity. But unfortunately for Mr. Giuliani, he followed National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, whose rousing, us-against-the-world speech had the crowd on its feet.
By comparison, Mr. Giuliani—fresh from the 8 a.m. Acela—seemed tired, almost distracted. And his speech, heavy on qualifiers and careful distinctions, low on culture-war references, seemed to suck all the energy out of the room. He slipped in and out of the conference so fast that many attendees didn’t even realize he’d shown up until hours later. (Writer George Will, who introduced Mr. Giuliani, seemed dynamic by comparison.)
Shortly afterward, down in the exhibit hall, Mr. Caprio was grumbling to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “We need a new guy in the race,” he said. “The ones we have now just aren’t cutting it.”