Conservative Confab Takes Center Stage

The Conservative Political Action Conference is always a significant event for the GOP faithful, but this year it seems to have attracted as much attention from outside the party as within. Erick Erickson of RedState.com reports from the scene of Mitt Romney's exit and John McCain's surge.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

The Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, is always a significant event for one important wing of GOP faithful. But this year, it seems to attract as much attention from outside the party as within.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Yesterday, the country watched Mitt Romney use the CPAC stage to announce his decision to suspend his campaign. And last night, John McCain gave a rallying speech that many thought highlighted him as the party candidate.

Now, to get inside the minds of those attending the convention, we checked in with Erik Erikson. He's the editor of the conservative blog RedState, and he's at CPAC right now. Hey. Erik.

Mr. ERIK ERIKSON (Editor, RedState.com): Good morning.

MARTIN: How are you doing?

Mr. ERIKSON: Good. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing okay. So the latest post on your blog reads, quote, "I welcome our McCainianic(ph) overlords."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: For real? Is this how you really feel, Erik?

Mr. ERIKSON: Oh, you know, that was written in humor. It's a result…

MARTIN: Hung from…

Mr. ERIKSON: …immigration (unintelligible). The Post was in Spanish. And, you know, there - I guess, there are three groups of people at CPAC. There's the one group who were adamantly Mitt Romney people. There's the other group -much, much smaller - that was the adamantly McCain people. And then there's the third group of people who think we're pretty much up a creek, whoever the nominee is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ERIKSON: Those people are probably the largest group and now, I think, the Mitt Romney people are in that group as well.

MARTIN: Let's start with Romney, before we get to McCain. Do you think Romney made the right move?

Mr. ERIKSON: I think so. I think it was fairly much a mathematical impossibility for him to pick up enough delegates to make a run at it. He could have gone on to contest it at the convention, and what has really been reported is that "Radio Talk Show's" Laura Ingraham introduced him, and very much the case at her speech that he should go all the way to the convention and fight it.

MARTIN: Now, I've been reading a lot of people writing about how Romney displayed such political acumen in this moves. Why? Why is he is so politically astute? If he was losing, he dropped out, (unintelligible).

Mr. ERIKSON: You - yeah. It does to me as well. And I'm not quite sure other than the fact this have probably, in two years of campaigning, the best speech Mitt Romney has ever given. You know, it's kind of sad. I mean, Fred Thompson's best speech was his last one before getting out. Mitt Romney's best speech was his last one before getting out. The same with Rudy Giuliani. I guess maybe if these guys start thinking they're going to get. It kind of concerns me about McCain because yesterday was also the best speech he's ever given. So I'm wondering when he's getting out.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little more about that. He needed to hit a lot of the money shots yesterday. He needed to talk about his conservative credentials. He talks a lot of those hot topics, talked about his pro-life records, staying the course in Iraq, making the Bush tax cuts permanent. It wasn't enough.

Mr. ERIKSON: You know, it wasn't enough for some people. He acknowledged disagreements on immigration and a few other things. But I think it wasn't so much important that McCain spoke as he was introduced by Tom Coburn and George Allen. And both of them, Coburn in particularly, really made the case that for the last eight years we've had our wagon hitched to a guy who's really not one of us. And this guy is more one of us than the current president.

MARTIN: Let's listen. He clearly acknowledged that he has not always been, shall we say, on good terms with…

Mr. ERIKSON: Right.

MARTIN: …the conservative base. Let's listen to a little bit of the speech from last night.

Mr. McCAIN: We've had a few disagreements and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few. But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is an error, I will correct it. And If I stand by my position, even after the benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in accord.

MARTIN: Now, it's - he's asking for forgiveness. In large part for this sticking point, this failed immigration bill that he put through with Senator Ted Kennedy, the conservatives didn't like that so much. Have they - do they accept that that he is kind of had this epiphany that that was wrong and he's asking for their forgiveness. Have they forgiven him?

Mr. ERIKSON: I don't think they do. He's going to have to do much more. This was a first step for him, this wasn't an ending. Because he's continued to defend that bill, and he said that he won't pursue it in his White House agenda. But, I mean, do people really trust him? I think he's going to have to go a lot further than that. But, I mean, he's acknowledging that difference. He also used the name Sam Alito, there's been a controversy the past couple of weeks of whether or not he really likes Sam Alito. He made sure to highlight Alito. He made sure to talk about life. He made sure to talk about all the issues on which there is agreement.

Jim Geraghty from National Review and I were talking and both agree that, you know, half a loaf, three quarters of a loaf, probably better than no loaf at all. And, by and large, this is guy is a conservative, just not an across-the-board conservative.

MARTIN: I'm sorry I didn't call him a loaf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I thought you were going to say…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I want to ask you, Erik, about the conservative evangelical base. The Associated Press is reporting that James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family, is set to endorse Mike Huckabee. That's not really so unexpected. But does - what does that say about how McCain is viewed within that population. And does he really meet them? Or is he so prominently ahead of the game now that maybe he doesn't have to make all kinds of commitments to that going forward?

Mr. ERIKSON: I don't think that McCain has to make as many commitments to evangelicals. He's going to need them in the end. I think what he's going to have to do is not so much embrace them, because, I mean, everyone would know it was phony. What he's going to have to do is not hold them in disdain. And he and Dobson, by and large, have not liked each other. And he has in the past said negative things about evangelical movement, but they're going to come and need each other for the next several years if he actually were to get to the White House. It's going to be interesting now to see how he treat Huckabee considering they've gotten along so well and…

MARTIN: Yeah, they seem to be kind of buddy-buddies.

Mr. ERIKSON: Right. By and large, I think there was a mutual respect there, but they both couldn't stand Mitt Romney. So they kind of have a love-hat relationship with Romney there. I suspect that we're going to see McCain treat Huckabee as a nonissue. There's no way Huckabee could get the nomination now. The question is will he send people in McCain's direction or really - will he really try to fight. I don't see how he can do it though.

MARTIN: Erik Erikson, editor of the conservative blog, RedState, on the ground at CPAC at this very moment. Thanks, Erik, for being with us this morning. We appreciate it.

Mr. ERIKSON: You're welcome. Thank you.

STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. It's a novel that was 10 years in the making. I'm so glad it's getting good reviews.

MARTIN: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Just for that fact, it's called "Beautiful Children" by Charles Bock. Rachel's interview with him coming up. And I - you want to know if all blue-eyed people are related?

MARTIN: Sure. Are they?

STEWART: Yeah. Listen to The Most.

MARTIN: Okay. I'll stick around.

STEWART: You're listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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