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Circuses and bread

Politics | At annual gathering of conservatives, Ann Coulter's antics steal attention from life-and-death issues

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

One day's agenda for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington early this month read like the playbill for presidential auditions, with nearly every Republican candidate dutifully lined up:

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) at 8:30 a.m., former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) at 10:00 a.m., former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at 12:00 p.m., Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) at 1:00 p.m., Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) at 1:30 p.m., former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) at 2:45 p.m.

And then columnist Ann Coulter, coming on right after Romney, grabbed the headlines with a string of quips about Democratic candidates that concluded with a statement both wrong and stupid: "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot, so I-so kind of an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards."

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Liberals seized on Coulter's remark as one more right-wing grotesquerie, and many conservatives said they had had enough. One group of prominent conservative bloggers, declaring that "the Age of Ann has ended," urged CPAC not to invite her to future events. Columnist/blogger Michelle Malkin lambasted "the substitution of stupid slurs for persuasion" and said Coulter's remark showed "poor judgment."

For many Christians the issue went further. When Coulter appeared on the University of Texas campus in 2005, and a young woman asked her how she could stand the awful things people said about her, she replied, "Christ died for my sins, and nothing else matters." It was a wonderful moment from an exceptionally talented person, but shouldn't those who believe in Christ endeavor to act in God-glorifying ways? And for a public speaker in American culture, as for the apostle Paul in Athenian culture, doesn't that mean being firm but courteous, and displaying bravery without bombast?

Coulter on the Fox News Channel responded to the criticism by saying she meant to indicate not that the married Edwards is gay but that he is a "sissy." She said, "It is a sophomoric word, not a bad word." But on the same channel National Review editor Rich Lowry didn't give Coulter any college credit; he said she used "a schoolyard slur that you don't expect from anyone over the age of 12."

Left behind in the schoolyard were the GOP candidates hoping to get some media play, sometimes by using props. During his allotted half hour, Brownback hoisted two phone-book-sized volumes of the federal tax code over his head to declare, "This is a monstrosity. This should be taken behind the barn and killed with a dull ax."

Other candidates introduced their supporting cast members. Romney prefaced his remarks by bringing his wife, Ann, on stage and announcing that this month marks their 38th wedding anniversary. The unspoken contrast was with the sensationally messy marital past of the public opinion poll frontrunner, former mayor Giuliani, who took the stage wearing in his lapel a flag pin that coordinated nicely with a row of 18 American flags that flanked him.

Giuliani focused on his City Hall record. "I don't just believe in lowering taxes. I did it, many, many times," he said, and also noted that his administration cut New York City crime by 50 percent and homicide by two-thirds. Invoking the mantle of Ronald Reagan, who captivated the CPAC crowd during 12 conference appearances, Giuliani urged voters to seek common ground. "We don't all agree on everything. I don't agree with myself about everything," he said. "But we do believe in many of the same things."

By the end of the speech, Giuliani was flexing his credibility on the security issues that first propelled him to national celebrity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. "Maybe we made a mistake in calling this the war on terror," he said. "This is not our war on them. This is their war on us."

But for Brooklyn native Geraldine Davie, even fond memories of Giuliani as mayor could not seal her support for Giuliani as president. "I have a natural respect and regard for Giuliani. Giuliani civilized New York [City]," said Davie, who lost a 23-year-old daughter in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But today, she said, "he wasn't great."

By the end of the auditions that afternoon, Davie had a new favorite candidate: "Romney had a lot more fire in the belly. Giuliani was very careful in the issues that he chose-and he never mentioned immigration. Romney took it on."

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