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Conservative Confab Ends with More Questions than Answers

Last month, Gallup reported that 40 percent of Americans identify as conservative, 35 percent as moderate, and 21 percent as liberal; independents, who comprise the largest political group in the country, lean more conservative than liberal but mostly hang out in the middle. While banking on a small-government message to reach out to that necessary independent block, there was also conference debate about whether fiscal conservatism can or should be divorced from social conservatism. And as Romney showed by leading his speech with gay marriage, and the conference topic du jour was the Obama administration's contraception sans co-payment mandate, there seemed to be little appetite for reaching out to moderates on a social-issues level.

Another theme that gets demoted in a presidential election year is how Congress will go, and CPAC was no different. The Tea Party played a key role in shaping the current makeup of the Republican House majority, and CPAC straw poll voters gave Congress a sky-high, sunny 70 percent approval rating. This was 48 percent in the nationwide poll. Across the voter spectrum nationwide, however, the congressional job approval average is a dismal 81.7 percent disapproval rating, with a record-low 10 percent of Americans approving of the job Congress is doing in a Gallup poll last week. Scott Rasmussen reported Sunday that more voters than ever see the Republican agenda in Congress as "extreme" -- 52 percent.

In short, the right has turf to defend in November as well as new ground to overtake.

The politician most mentioned, most quoted in this meeting of conservative minds was, predictably, Ronald Reagan. But there was a noticeable lack of attention paid to what was a cornerstone of the Reagan presidency in terms of a focus on foreign policy, national security, looming global threats, and a strong military that now faces a budgetary ax to take readiness down to dangerous, one-conflict levels.

When asked about personal core beliefs, both CPAC and nationwide conservative voters identified individual freedom and small government as the key issue, followed by promoting traditional values. Twelve percent of CPAC voters and 13 percent in the nationwide poll picked guaranteeing American safety at home and abroad as the driving issue, though the gauge was most definitely thrown off by what the Washington Times tacked onto the end of that question: "regardless of the cost or the size of government."

In general, though, this reflects nationwide trends where, when asked to rank important issues, voters push terrorism, national security, and wars to the low single digits, or relegate foreign policy to the "other" bin altogether.

While some of the main speakers threw in a line or two about a nuclear Iran being unacceptable, foreign policy issues clearly ranked lower on the totem pole than others at CPAC.

These crucial issues will get a much-needed spotlight in three weeks, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to town for the AIPAC conference to dish what will assuredly be a hearty helping of reality for Washington -- and America.