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."
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."
When CPAC announced the straw poll results at the end of the conference, Romney won the vote with 21 percent. Giuliani took second place with 17 percent, while John McCain, the subject of conservative criticism for skipping the conference, slipped to fifth, drawing only 12 percent of the vote. Romney volunteers carried red foam baseball gloves with "MITT! '08" inscribed on the back.
Anti-Romneys, though, passed out flip-flops-indicating that they do not trust the candidate who has changed from support of abortion and the gay political agenda to opposition. One anti-Romney wore a stuffed dolphin suit.
With a record 6,300 in attendance at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, including 2,500 college students, some serious moments occurred. Candidate Brownback spoke of abortion: "Life begins at conception, biologically. This isn't a theological question. If any of you were killed at that very early phase, you wouldn't be here today. And we stand for life. We believe it is sacred. It's unique. It's beautiful. It's the child of a loving God. That applies to the child in the womb, and it also applies to the child in Darfur. This is a full definition of life, and we fight for life."
Candidate Huckabee also brought up the great unmentionable: "Please don't count me among those who think that this is a peripheral issue, because I believe it's a defining issue in terms of how we view each other as human beings. . . . I'm a little troubled when I hear people say . . . 'I hate abortion, but I support the right for people to go ahead and do it.' Let me just tell you, it would be like a Hindu friend of mine saying that 'I really don't care for the slaughter of beef, but I'm going to buy a steak house.' Now, something is just irreconcilable in that very concept."
Giuliani, one of those Huckabee implicitly criticized, spoke of his experience in prosecuting organized crime: "I can never remember anybody coming into my office, knocking on my door and saying, 'I want to tell you about the Gambino crime family.' Nobody comes in and tells you about it. You know how we found about it? We had to intrude into their activities. We had to breach their privacy. We had to have electronic surveillance. . . . This is very, very much the same thing that we have to do with terrorism. But it requires being on offense. It requires understanding that you need the tools like the Patriot Act and legal electronic surveillance."
Romney spoke of the need to "support moderate Muslim governments and nations and peoples. They need to make sure they have public schools that aren't Wahhabi schools, the rule of law, property rights, modern banking and agriculture, and pro-growth economic policies, because in the end, it's the Muslim people themselves who will have to eliminate radical jihad." He said that in Iraq "we were underprepared and underplanned and undermanaged and undermanned. But walking away now because of those mistakes, or dividing the country and then walking away, would have real and severe risks for America and for our troops. And that's why I support the troop surge."
But all such discussions played second fiddle to Ann Coulter's slur.