CPAC Buzz Reflects Disenchantment With GOP Field

Beth Reinhard

At last year’s annual gathering of conservative activists, anticipation ran high about a bevy of bold, charismatic Republicans like Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Rep. Paul Ryan who seemed poised to make President Obama a short-timer in Washington.

One year later, Daniels, Christie, and Ryan aren’t running for president, and many of the voters at the Conservative Political Action Conference are still looking for a standard-bearer. Nine months out from Election Day, a surprising number of people here are unsatisfied with the Republican field, weary of the increasingly bitter primary and desperate for positive inspiration. What’s more, they are increasingly worried that a protracted battle for the nomination will damage the GOP’s ability to take back the White House.

It’s as if the depressed Republican turnout and muted enthusiasm for the front-running Mitt Romney, apparent in Tuesday’s contests in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, picked up and moved east.

“I’m just so disappointed," Glen Bonderenko, a 59-year-old direct-mail fundraiser from Colorado Springs, Colo., said on Thursday. “Our own candidates are beating each other up, and it’s not good for the party.’’

William Burton, 22, a Republican Party activist from Roanoke, Va., was equally wistful. “I don’t feel like we have real strong candidates. Those in the race are just acting like conservatives to get elected,’’ he said. “I know it’s a long shot, but I wish someone like Daniels or Christie would come along and win the nomination at a brokered convention.’’

That is not to say that voters here are pessimistic of the GOP’s chances of beating Obama. Quite the opposite. Many activists said their desire to deprive him of a second term was far more powerful than any discontent that they felt with the current crop of Republican contenders.

But while much of the Republican establishment is already rallying behind Mitt Romney, the only current candidate with the money and muscle to run a traditional national campaign, the feeling of unrest is not limited to rank-and-file Republicans.

“It could very well go to the convention,’’ South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a hero of the conservative movement, said on CNN on Thursday morning. That sentiment was echoed by Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, in a separate interview.

In response, Republican strategist Brett Doster, who ran Romney's winning campaign in Florida, said he's confident Romney will fire up the activists in the audience when he speaks to the gathering on Friday.

"CPAC features some of the most engaged conservative activists in the country, and they are rallying around Mitt Romney because he will do the three things that matter to them most: cut spending, balance the budget, and beat Barack Obama," he said.

A protracted battle for the nomination seems inevitable in light of Rick Santorum’s unlikely sweep of Tuesday’s contests and Newt Gingrich’s promise to keep campaigning “all the way to the convention.’’

Polls show the increasingly brutal primary featuring millions of dollars in attack ads is taking a toll on Romney’s image, particularly among the independent voters who are likely to decide the election. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted last week found Romney viewed negatively by 42 percent of independents – an 11-point increase from December.

A Wall Street Journal editorial on Thursday called Santorum “a little dour, like your grand-uncle who says the country is going to hell on the installment plan’’ and chided Romney for his “relentlessly negative campaign.’’ Romney has largely dispatched rivals like Gingrich and Rick Perry by leveling them with attacks, not by elevating his own candidacy. The same fate could be facing Santorum, a former Pennslyvania senator cast by Romney and his allies as a typical Washington insider addicted to pork-barrel politics.

Negativity also characterizes Romney’s case against Obama, said Henry Vacek, a 70-year-old retiree from Johnston, N.Y, at the conference. Romney condemns his health care legislation and his failure to reform Social Security but fails to offer alternatives, he said.

“They’re too busy attacking each other,’’ Vacek said. “You can’t defeat Obama without ideas.’’

Vacek and his wife, Theresa, were wearing Santorum stickers, but she is much more comfortable with her choice. He is still hoping for a late entry; Ryan, scheduled to speak at the conference on Thursday night, would be his first choice.

“I’m still hoping for a brokered convention,’’ Vacek said. “The future of the U.S. hangs in the balance.’’

That kind of wishful thinking worried other activists at the conference, who say it’s time for the party to unify against Obama.

“If you’re looking for the enthusiasm gap, it’s with me,’’ said Brent Eskew, 43, a Fort Collins, Colo., attorney.  “I’m not thrilled about any of the choices, but I’m ready to get behind Mitt Romney so we can start focusing on the general election.’’

Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich are slated to address the convention on Friday. Their challenges are not lost on the Obama campaign, which released a memo Wednesday night from pollster Joel Benenson that laid out the dissatisfaction pervading Republican voters. Voter turnout in five of the eight contests so far has been down. Romney lost two states – Colorado and Missouri – he won in 2008. Even in Nevada, where Romney posted his best showing this year, Benenson noted the former Massachusetts governor got 27 percent fewer votes than in 2008.

“The grinding, negative nature of Romney’s candidacy, which has relied heavily on attacks on his opponents, has served to erode his standing and GOP enthusiasm overall,’’ Benenson said. “As Republican discontent with their presidential nominees heightens, the supposed enthusiasm advantage among Republican voters has been thrown into reverse.’’

Alex Roarty contributed