WASHINGTON-Over the years, whenever I walk into the swank D.C.-area hotel that's hosting CPAC, one of nation's biggest gatherings of conservatives, I have an immediate flashback to college.
The Conservative Political Action Conference looks and feels like a college campus. Students swarm CPAC. They come to see in person some of the nation's top conservative political leaders. They come to visit booths set up by some of the nation's top conservative groups. They come to attend seminars run by some of the nation's top conservative teachers.
They also come to miss a few days of class, to stay a couple of nights in that swank hotel thanks to a steep student discount, and (maybe most importantly) to meet cool conservatives of the opposite sex. After all, one of the seminars this year was a conservative dating class.
The 2012 version of CPAC, in its 39th year, has been no different. The cavernous ballroom here erupted Friday when presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a shout out to all the students at the conference.
Students wandered the elaborate, maze-like halls of the Marriott Wyndham hotel, gawking at the usual parade of costumed conservatives. Among the sights this year: a man in a fat suit symbolizing big government, a puppet posing as a reporter and a person in a rhinoceros outfit symbolizing Republicans in name only, or RINOS.
Using my unscientific eye test, I could not determine which Republican presidential candidate had the most sticker support. Attendees here sported Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich stickers in equally plentiful numbers. Surprisingly, Ron Paul, the fourth presidential candidate, who is usually a CPAC rock star thanks to his strong support among college students, choose not to attend this year's event.
But that didn't stop Paul supporter Ryan Guilliam from making the 13-hour drive here from Indiana University, where he is a 21-year-old junior. Making the road trip (another reason college students take the CPAC trek) with four other Paul supporters from his college cost Guilliam some of his rent money. But he didn't seem too concerned about that on Friday.
"We are dedicated people to the cause," said Guilliam, who added that he is most drawn to Paul's basic message of liberty. "Paul is the most real person out there. He is likeable and doesn't sacrifice his principles. He's the guy who will get in there and shake things up."
Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who has won more states than any other candidate so far in this primary season, took the CPAC stage Friday morning accompanied by his family.
"This is not the von Trapp family. We are not going to sing," joked Santorum, who said his family was with him "because this is who I am." They stood behind him for his entire message.
Santorum's talk focused on his conservative roots: "I know you and you know me and that's important because we've worked together." He also talked about his faith: "Our rights don't come from the government. They come from a much higher authority." And he railed against the Obama administration: "It's about government control of your lives, and it's got to stop." To which the crowd jumped out of their seats.
Santorum also showed a sense of humor about one of his biggest hurdles, his fundraising disadvantage. "I'm not asking you for your fortune although … a piece of that would be helpful."
Hank Piaseck, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, said Santorum is the only "consistent conservative in this race." Piaseck, who just started his own conservative blog, said Santorum never supported the individual mandate, the federal bailout, or cap and trade. Initially drawn to Gingrich, due to the former House speaker's debate performances, Piaseck said he switched to Santorum because he has "less skeletons in his closet" and because he "remained above the fray" when his rivals started to attack one another.
Like Santorum, Romney took the CPAC stage midday Friday to loud cheers.
"Mitt. Mitt," the crowd chanted.
Romney touted his conservative credentials. "I know conservatives because I've lived conservatism," he said, crediting his family, his faith, and his life work for drawing him to the conservative cause. He also trumpeted his business background and his status as the only remaining candidate who hasn't worked in Washington.
"In business if you're not fiscally conservative you're bankrupt," Romney said, getting his own standing ovation for saying he is not ashamed that he was successful in business. "I served in government, but I didn't inhale. I'm still a business guy."
Will Simpson, a 20-year-old sophomore economics and finance major at the University of Arkansas, said he backs Romney because the former Massachusetts governor has more executive experience than his rivals. "His being able to govern right of center in one of the bluest states in America shows his political savvy," he said.
A Baptist who leads a Bible study for Campus Crusade, Simpson said he is not bothered by Romney's Mormon faith. "Even though I wouldn't go to church with him and I have theological quibbles with him, I think his broader worldview and polices are consistent with Christian values," he said, citing Romney's long marriage as evidence.
Simpson added that Romney's fundraising success would allow him to keep pace with the Obama machine while Romney's business experiences will appeal to more independent voters. He scoffed at those who try to tab Romney as a moderate: "Romney was the conservative alternative to [John] McCain in 2008."
Gingrich received a more muted initial reception at CPAC, maybe partly due to his late afternoon slot. But he warmed up the crowd by promising to eliminate federal programs like Obamacare, to reform entitlements, and to audit the Federal Reserve.
The former speaker also took on the Washington establishment for lacking the toughness, commitment and philosophy necessary for building a majority. "This campaign is a mortal threat to their grip on the establishment because we intend to change Washington, not accommodate it," Gingrich said.
Saying the number one fight in the general campaign will be a paycheck president versus a food stamp president, Gingrich also warned that Barack Obama, if reelected, "will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after."
Jessica Schoech, a 20-year-old broadcast journalism and political science major at Wichita State University, roamed the hotels halls holding a "Newt 2012" poster.
Excited to be voting in her first presidential election, Schoech is drawn to Gingrich's passion and grasp on the issues. "We need someone with a backbone in the White House," she said. "If he doesn't agree with Congress he will let them know."
Schoech, a Catholic, said Gingrich's marital infidelities are not costing him her support because he has asked for forgiveness. "For him to admit he had a problem is a big step in making himself a better person," she said. "Too many politicians don't admit they make mistakes."
But Schoech admitted that Gingrich has stumbled of late, adding that he needs to shake off the attacks. "He let Romney get to him," she said.
Despite their passions for different candidates, the college students I talked to agreed on one thing: They all pledged to get behind the last Republican standing next fall.