Fears, Faith and Freedom at CPAC

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

People walk past a cardboard cutout of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Feb. 9, 2012.

“Ultimately, I’m a lobbyist for freedom,” a man in a yarmulke tells a pretty girl in the basement of a cavernous Marriott in northwest Washington. The man could have been attempting to network or to flirt — a seminar on how to date conservatives had just wrapped up down the hall — but either way, the description seemed perfectly pitched to the frequency of CPAC, the annual confab at which conservatives converge on the town they love to hate to hobnob with political celebrities, nurture their contacts and bemoan the ruinous state of the Republic over a drink or four. Everyone is a friend of freedom here. Nobody is a friend to Barack Obama. On these matters, they can all agree.

And that’s often all they can agree on. CPAC’s thousands of attendees are a reminder of the vast array of parochial interests cohabiting under the conservative tent: business groups and birthers, social conservatives and survivalists, deficit hawks and neocons. The large contingent of college kids tends to lend the event, now in its 39th year, the feel of a bacchanal.

This year is a little different. If the conservative movement has sizzled in the age of Obama, the specter of a Mitt Romney Administration leaves much of the crowd here cold. “We’re all divided. We’re not really excited about any of the candidates,” says Brendan Steinauser, the director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based Tea Party organization. Three remaining contenders will arrive tomorrow, when Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum will all address the throngs. (Ron Paul, the two-time defending champion of the CPAC straw poll, decided to sit the event out.)

(MORE: Santorum Stuns Romney with Three-State Sweep, Stealing Momentum in GOP Race)

News does break at CPAC — in 2008, Romney used the forum to announce he was suspending his campaign — but little of it trickled out in the opening act of the three-day event. Thursday was reserved for congressional stars (Marco Rubio, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan) and the presidential candidates whose dreams have already died. Michele Bachmann told the crowd the process of running for President was “one series of humiliations after another.” Rick Perry said his own campaign “just ran out of time.” And Herman Cain, whose 15 minutes may never end, embraced a fleeting star of the last presidential cycle by announcing his endorsement of Joe the Plumber’s congressional campaign. (Neither Cain nor Perry, Gingrich endorsers both, mentioned the former House Speaker’s name during their addresses.)

If the formal speeches were a litany of familiar conservative tropes, the seminars and exhibitions served up CPAC’s strange brew of energetic evangelism, education and self-promotion. In a warren of basement rooms, scores of conservative organizations set up booths to hawk literature, build their e-mail databases or spread the word about new startups. Attendees could shoot virtual trap at an NRA booth, sign up for graduate studies, or buy faded Nixon and Goldwater campaign buttons at a table of vintage paraphernalia.

There were also giveaways galore. Google handed out sunglasses. American Crossroads distributed Twix bars. Those who signed up for an e-mail list were entitled to a “Team Boehner” beer koozie. Someone handed out “Tebow for President” decals. “I love Chuck Norris! I just love him!” gushed a girl clutching a card inscribed with the face of the septuagenarian conservative icon. Nearby were ads touting a one-night-only showing of a movie by Kirk Cameron, the Growing Pains star-turned Christian evangelist, and one based on Dinesh D’Souza’s book that argued Obama’s policies should be understood through the prism of his “Kenyan, anticolonialist” leanings. At the booth of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – an outfit that is based out of Spring Grove, Penn., claims 200,000 members and screened a film that asked God to “protect us from the homosexual agenda,” a man wore what appeared to be red shawl over his shoulder. “It’s our cape,” says James Bascom, a spokesman for the group. “It’s a symbol that captures our admiration for chivalry and knighthood.”

(MORE: Was Tuesday Night Really So Terrible for Mitt Romney?)

In another corner, a new website called Procinctu (Latin translation: prepared for battle), which advises Americans to stockpile precious metals, raffled off a free half-ounce silver coin (estimated worth: $20) to anyone willing to sign up for their distribution list. “We’re basically about self-empowerment,” says Travis Englert, Procinctu’s founder, says of the site, which warns customers about topics ranging from the agribusiness giant Monsanto to the ravages of fiat money. “I knew 10,000 people would be here. It’s a good way to get my feet wet,” he says. “Just to get the message across. Because people are pretty dumb.”

Some of CPAC’s programming tiptoes along a murky line between earnest ideology and coded fear-mongering. Alongside the seminars on conservative dating — “how to avoid scaring away your own personal Dagney Taggart in the first five minutes,” taught by a professional pickup artist — and the Arab Spring were discussions of nullification and the Obama EPA’s record on green jobs. After a kerfuffle last year, the gay Republican group GOProud is no longer welcome, but a discussion on the problems posed by multiculturalism featured two panelists with ties to white-nationalist movements.

This is the exception rather than the rule. Much of CPAC’s speeches are de riguer conservative boilerplate, and much of its exhibition hall is given over to the unglamorous business of publicizing one’s political cause, whatever that may be. Take FreedomWorks. In the absence of enthusiasm for any of the remaining presidential candidates, the group has swung its focus to touting congressional candidates and legislative action — such as right-to-work laws — in statehouses across the U.S. “For us, it’s about taking back the Senate. It’s about local and state races for now,” Steinhauser says.

(MORE: Mitt Romney’s Sweet Spot: Just Conservative Enough)

It’s also about dispelling the idea that spreading liberty is a fusty business. “There’s this perceived notion that the Tea Party is not young, and it really is,” says campaigns coordinator David Spielman, one of several FreedomWorks staffers clad in black “This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Tea Party” shirts and encouraging spectators to join them in a makeshift dance routine. “We’ve got all races. We’ve got all ages. Liberty is a young idea. It’s a hip idea.” Onlookers nodded their heads. After all, at CPAC everyone is a lobbyist for freedom.

MORE: Election 2012: Can Anyone Stop Romney?

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