The Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) Conference, held every year in Washington, is essentially the dog-and-pony show of the Republican Party. It is a beauty contest for prospective presidential candidates to strut their stuff, and this year’s event took place February 25-28.
Make no mistake, the speakers there are not being altruistic: they are there to woo the audience for self-serving purposes. Most likely, to test the waters to see what kind of buzz they might generate by dropping some not-so-subtle hints about their aspiration to live in the White House. Before analyzing what all of this means and doesn’t mean, let’s take a look at the results of this early horserace.
25.7 Sen. Rand Paul
21.4 Gov. Scott Walker
11.5 Sen. Ted Cruz
11.4 Dr. Ben Carson
8.3 Former Gov. Jeb Bush
4.3 Former Sen. Rick Santorum
3.7 Sen. Marco Rubio
3.5 Donald Trump
3.0 Carly Fiorina
2.8 Gov. Chris Christie
1.1 Former Gov. Rick Perry
0.9 Gov. Bobby Jindal
0.8 Former Gov. Sarah Palin
0.3 Former Gov. Mike Huckabee
0.3 Former Amb. John Bolton
0.1 Sen. Lindsey Graham
0.1 Former Gov. George Pataki
Now, for the fun stuff…keeping in mind that any analysis here, whether deeming the poll results an accurate indicator or an aberration, is rather premature.
To no one’s surprise – because he won this same straw poll in 2013 and 2014 as well – Kentucky Senator Rand Paul captured the top spot with 25.7 percent. Paul is the standard-bearer of the Party’s libertarian wing, though he is less extreme and divisive than his father, Ron, the former Congressman and cult favorite perennial presidential candidate.
The big story (according to much of the media, but not to this columnist) is the “surge” of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the latest GOP flavor-of-the-month. Walker’s novelty is that he managed to fight and beat the big unions in Wisconsin. Good for him – and I mean that sincerely. But that issue alone won’t be enough to catapult him to the Republican nomination next summer, and he simply doesn’t have enough firepower in his arsenal to overcome his one-dimensional appeal.
Next up, neck and neck, were Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson, finishing over 11 percent apiece. The problem with them is, they don’t fit the presidential role very well. The angles of Cruz’ face are too sharp for today’s Hollywood look-seeking electorate to embrace. As for Carson, he is so button-down dignified that he makes Dick Cheney look like an improvisational street performer by comparison. Cruz has the puncher’s chance because of his principled positions, but that’s about it: neither of these two capable fellows is going to get the nod.
Next comes the monumentally-important Jeb Bush, whom many observers compare more to his father than to his brother, both of whom were president. And that’s the problem: Jeb may not mangle his words like Bush 43 did so infamously, but neither he nor his dad every have George W.’s passion or political instincts. Nonetheless, Jeb is smart, he’s got a Mexican-born wife, a dark-featured son who speaks fluent Spanish, and his other son’s in-laws are from Afghanistan. This is no lily-white redneck cracker, folks – and though he is hardly the odds-on favorite, he’s also the least likely to be counted out anytime soon.
Marco Rubio at this juncture (to throw in a George H.W. Bush-ism), if everyone doesn’t realize it yet, is far and away the most valuable of the group: not for the top spot, but for vice president. I cannot think of a single potential candidate on this list who wouldn’t benefit from Rubio as the Number 2 on the ticket (except maybe for Cruz, because one Latino on the GOP card is smart, two is risky – after all, the Republicans haven’t changed as much as they’d like to think they have).
Rick Santorum might make another run, and he’ll generate some excitement among his party’s family values populists – but he’ll do no better than he did in 2012, and probably not even as well. Bobby Jindal is no less uncharismatic than he ever was, which is his biggest problem, and Rick Perry, well, this ought to say it all: the former Texas governor, among Texas Republicans, is polling fourth.
Donald Trump and Sarah Palin seem more comfortable being caricatures of themselves these days than just being themselves. And that’s a shame, because they do make valuable contributions to the discussion at times. But in politics, perception trumps reality, and therefore just about everyone else trumps Trump…and Palin.
CPAC crowds love John Bolton. But why he’s even on a list of 2016 presidential hopefuls is beyond me.
This brings us to the rest of the group – the most interesting ones of the lot.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has the distinction of being the only woman currently considering a Republican run. Quite interestingly, because the Democrats’ inevitable frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is a woman, too, this gives Fiorina a golden opportunity to Hillary-bash to her heart’s content without the risk of being seen as a sexist, or an alpha-male bully. If nothing else, Fiorina can expose the chinks in Hillary’s armor, and she might even emerge as a VP possibility if for some reason Rubio doesn’t want the gig.
Lindsey Graham also has one advantage that most seem to overlook: in a year already dominated by foreign policy, he has more experience in it than anyone else on this list – and by leaps and bounds. He and foreign policy wonk John McCain are the U.S. Senate’s Bobbsey Twins. He, too, has a puncher’s chance.
The two favorites, as I see it, are NJ Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor – and more importantly, for national name recognition, longtime Fox News Channel talk show host – Mike Huckabee. They are the charisma leaders of this bunch, and like cream, charisma tends to rise to the top. Just give it time, it’s early yet. It will just come down to whether the country is more in the mood for New Jersey brashness or Southern gentlemanliness.
There is one person I have yet to mention – who finished at the bottom of the list: former New York Governor George Pataki. Since retiring from the governorship in 2006, Pataki has not run for office again. But he has practically no negatives, is a well-seasoned politician, and has never lost an election. Oh – and he’s the one who dethroned liberal legend Mario Cuomo to become governor in the first place.
Besides, it’s the candidates we least expect to win the nomination at this point, who usually do.
Save this article and look at it this time next year. Between the straw poll and my predictions, it’s bound, in hindsight, to generate a few laughs!