A star-studded cast of GOP heavyweights will be speaking this weekend at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But the conference itself may not be the main attraction for the hundreds of activists, party workers, and leaders who will be coming to hear the likes of Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul.
Instead, the attendees will be all abuzz with gossip about who’s up, who’s down, who’s in or out at the Republican National Committee. No doubt Southern GOP committeemen will be special targets of a media looking for a story about the continuing soap opera that Michael Steele’s chairmanship has become. And to make matters even more interesting, Steele is still on the agenda as closing speaker for the conference on Saturday afternoon.
The dizzying progression of scandals, charges of misuse of party funds, personnel changes, and high-profile calls for Steele to step down threaten to take the focus off what should be the conference’s main purpose: to rally the troops and send them off to the midterm wars with confidence and enthusiasm. Instead, they have the chairman of their party basically accusing them of racism for questioning his job performance, a national organization in painful disarray, and the entire party waiting for the next scandal or embarrassment to drop. Although there have been a few calls for Steele to step down, most of the national committee seems to be solidly behind him, so there is little chance they can force him out. But it won’t take much for that to change. Steele has been given just about all the rope he is going to get, and with midterms approaching, the absolute last thing the party needs is this kind of turmoil at the top.
What kind of reception can Chairman Steele expect on Saturday? The chairman has never been very popular with the rank and file, but the attendees will mostly be leadership types who look for results. And when the organization you head can raise $11.4 million in March, you’re not doing half bad. Steele will be greeted politely but not enthusiastically.
The conference will also be notable for who isn’t attending. Mitt Romney suddenly found something better to do on March 25 and canceled his scheduled appearance. Some might think Mitt is going into hiding because a lot of Republicans are angry at him for RomneyCare, which served as something of a template for ObamaCare. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Romney is going to be promoting his new book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
Still, as the acknowledged front-runner for the nomination, Romney is not doing himself any favors by passing up an event where his main rivals — Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee — will be the headliners. What’s he afraid of? There really may be some backlash associated with RomneyCare, especially among Southern conservatives who poll as the most opposed to national health insurance reform. In this instance, it is possible Romney thought it wiser to avoid unpleasant confrontations until passions cool somewhat.
Evidently, Mitt has no apologies for RomneyCare at the moment and probably won’t for a while. Some doubt whether Romney can recover and make a solid run for president in 2012. It would certainly be awkward for him to advocate for repeal of ObamaCare while still defending his own health care program that features individual mandates forcing citizens to buy insurance and several other similarities with ObamaCare. I don’t know if chameleons can change into that color. But if Romney can go from supporting a government-sponsored solution for our health care problems to born-again advocate for free market fixes, he will have become a new species of lizard that not only changes color but is capable of hypnotizing its prey.
Also canceling at the last minute was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. With no real chance to shine among the rest of the pack, Pawlenty probably figures his time is better spent elsewhere. He decided to go to a ceremony honoring Iraq veterans instead.
No preview of this shindig would be complete without a look at Ron Paul and the zaniness that surrounds his every appearance. I predict beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ron Paul will win the straw poll being conducted on Saturday for presidential contenders. This is actually a no-brainer. First, Paul wins every meaningless poll anywhere one is held, whether online or at some event like the SRLC. Secondly, Paulbots are stacking the deck:
Meanwhile, Paul and his fans seem to be preparing for another end-run straw-poll victory at the SRLC. Earlier this month, the Web site of his group Campaign for Liberty was “proud to announce a massively discounted rate on SRLC tickets for our supporters at $30 a ticket.” Seems an anonymous donor bought a block of tickets for Paul fans. (VIP tickets to the SRLC are $700 apiece, while “partial access” tickets, allowing the bearer to watch most sessions elsewhere in the hotel via closed-circuit TV, are only $119. It wasn’t clear which tickets were in the Paul bloc.)
“Fans” is a good description of Paul backers. In many ways, they remind me of Chicago Bears supporters who show up for December home games in sub-zero temperatures and, after a few nips of the creature, remove their shirts and enjoy the game, totally oblivious to the frigid conditions. The Paulites really have no clue regarding their effect on ordinary people who are astonished at their cult-like devotion to this little angry man who thinks the Fed is the devil incarnate and that we should go back on the gold standard. Paul is a traveling side show and has no more support today — 2% among national Republicans — than he did in 2008. Because of this, he can do little more than disrupt the proceedings. He is scheduled to speak on Saturday, immediately prior to Michael Steele’s address.
The Southern Republican Leadership Conference is billed as “the most prominent Republican event outside of the Republican National Convention.” Given all the sidebar stories and drama that may play out away from the main stage, this may be one to remember.