WASHINGTON — “On the count of three, yell out what your favorite panel or speaker has been so far today!”
Oliver Darcy’s first attempt yielded no more than a dull hum from the 30 attendees gathered before him at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.
“This is a terrible crowd,” the ExposingLeftists.com founder said, his voice calmly rising. “Let’s pick up the energy.”
“Let’s try it again. One… two… three…”
“Lunch!” shouted a smirking attendee from the back of the Wilson Room at the Marriott Washington Wardman Park, where the annual summit of conservatives is stationed this year.
Although Darcy’s seminar had more to do with the play button than the campaign button — he was teaching the ins and outs of what the CPAC program billed “video activism” — his audience’s subdued response seemed to reflect a broader theme of the conference’s first brush with the GOP primary season.
Republican contenders Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich all delivered their presidential pitches to CPAC attendees Friday, with past convention favorite Ron Paul skipping town this time reportedly to focus on campaigning.
Despite several lively moments in each candidate’s stump speech, the CPAC crowd did not exactly embrace a clear choice for the Republican nominee, as they have in the past with Paul, who won last year’s convention straw poll by a wide margin.
At least that’s how Tea Party Patriots volunteer Diana Reimer viewed it as she mulled over primary voters’ current options.
“So far, everything’s up in the air,” she said. “I’m not feeling a sense of anyone excited about anyone in particular.”
Santorum’s supporters had by far the most visible presence at the conference Friday.
Campaign volunteers surrounded the foot of the hotel’s most frequented escalators, passing out “Santorum 2012” placards and tearing off stickers for the less committal. The former Pennsylvania senator’s mid-afternoon meet and greet attracted a never-ending line that looped through the hotel’s mezzanine level, even as provocative author Ann Coulter filmed a relatively open interview at a nearby booth.
And as the day’s events wound down after digital publisher Andrew Breitbart’s speech, about 20 Santorum backers spontaneously started chanting the candidate’s name from the hotel’s main lobby, causing heads to swivel on the second floor overlooking it.
In his morning address, Santorum seemed to speak directly to those followers.
“Folks, I’ve been here before,” he told CPAC attendees. “We know each other… I know you, and you know me. And that’s important.”
Santorum’s speech mainly focused on restoring traditional values and founding principles to a nation led astray by President Barack Obama.
Santorum dismissed the claim that he’s a Washington insider — “Some say experience is a bad thing. I don’t think so” — effectively pre-empting one of Romney’s go-to attack lines against the social conservative.
“We hear those same voices today that we have to learn our lesson — that we need to compromise, do what’s politically reasonable, and go out and push someone forward who can win,” Santorum said. “Well, I think we have learned our lesson. And the lesson we’ve learned is that we will no longer abandon and apologize for the principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November.”
In a maneuver apparently aimed at restraining the revitalized Santorum, Romney struck on more social issues than usual, touting his past record fighting same-sex marriage, abortion and human cloning as Massachusetts governor.
Santorum swept the last three primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where no delegates were rewarded — a so-called “beauty contest” that can only provide momentum to a constant runner-up like Santorum. However, Romney still led by more than 11 points in RealClearPolitics’ national polling average as of Friday night.
At CPAC, Romney called himself a “severely conservative Republican governor” who fought against the odds in a liberal-leaning state.
But one of his few lines garnering widespread applause came when he told the CPAC audience he would not apologize for the wealth he gained working at Bain Capital.
“I did some of the very things conservatism is designed for,” Romney said, “and I’m not ashamed to say I was successful in doing it.”
Wrapping up the convention day was Gingrich, who vowed to forge ahead with his campaign despite trailing in all polls and going 0-3 during the last batch of early state contests.
The former House speaker was introduced by his wife Callista, who rarely inserts herself into his public appearances.
“We are running a people campaign,” Gingrich said. “We don’t have the scale or money some of our competitors do, but we have a plan.”
He said as a president he would slash through bureaucratic waste within the federal government and reform the tax code to spur economic growth.
Despite Romney’s sudden interest in social causes and Gingrich’s lofty promises, Santorum’s name kept emerging among CPAC attendees as the conference closed Friday evening.
Reimer’s husband, Don, said he heard all three candidates’ speeches and was most impressed by Santorum, who’s “very genuine” and “speaks from the heart.”
He disputed his wife’s claim that conservative enthusiasm was dwindling.
“I think the energy and attendance is greater than last year, and last year was great,” Don said, noting it still seemed like there were more young people at last year’s event.
Former Romney supporter Robert Algard agreed that Santorum was the most attractive candidate to take the stage Friday. The 20-year-old student recalled switching allegiances after watching Romney debate at his school, South Carolina’s Citadel military college, late last year.
“He’s got pretty weak foreign policy,” Algard said. “His focus is more toward his donors. He didn’t really address us [as students].”
Algard added he originally backed Romney “more out of naivete than anything. Everybody talked so highly of him.”
“This guy — he’s got too many similarities to Obama,” Algard said of Romney as he passed out literature at Santorum’s booth in the CPAC exhibit hall.
The conservative confab ends Saturday with a keynote address by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The results of this year’s CPAC straw poll will be announced at 4:15 p.m.