Conservative Confab Ends with More Questions than Answers

If I had to sum up the three days of the Conservative Political Action Conference in as many words, it would have to be "Breitbart versus Occupiers."

Because if reaching for more serious summaries about cohesive message, party unity, or a strongly emerging candidate, the words that hung in the air over the DC event were a solid, pervasive "what now?"

There were campaign signs and stickers dotting the landscape, and overflow seating to watch the speeches of the three GOP presidential candidates. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) toted his family onstage to drive home his message that he's the family values candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got the most standing ovations with a string of Pavlovian talking points yet finished third in the straw poll, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped "conservative" or some variant of the word 24 times in his address -- including the "severely conservative" label that left more than a few scratching their heads.

There was the second-highest number of voters in the history of the straw poll, with nearly half of those voters being students and an almost disquieting lack of Ron Paul faithful. But those committed to other candidates weren't exactly closing the enthusiasm gap left by Paul's no-show, and even more attendees were overheard grousing about having to pick which candidate he or she disliked the least.

There were two hearty doses of crowd-pleasing populism in the electric speeches of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Those, and addresses by other conservative favorites such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), both excited attendees and reminded them that no candidate who can truly stoke the base and drive the right to the polls is actually running in this year's presidential race.

And if such a candidate to rally the right jumped into the race, perhaps in the possibility of a brokered convention, there are no guarantees that a dream CPAC candidate could win a general election.

Yet one of the messages sent strongly by CPAC voters -- and the corresponding Washington Times phone poll of 600 self-identified conservatives -- is that the general election isn't their point.

At the conference, 59 percent of straw poll voters picked a candidate's stances on the issues as the most important quality in choosing a nominee, compared to 56 percent in the nationwide poll. Thirty-eight percent at CPAC and 33 percent nationwide picked the candidate's chances to beat President Obama in November as most important.