Among the many tchotchkes and souvenirs at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in New Orleans, one stood out, and it wasn't the National Organization for Marriage's star-spangled ballpoint or the "Evangelicals for Mitt" pink piggy bank. It was a shrink-wrapped chunk of caribou jerky left on attendees' seats with a jaunty message: "An Alaskan Snack From SarahPAC!".
"Sarah" was, of course, Sarah Palin — at the SRLC, she had one-name status, like Madonna or Cher — and on Friday, April 9, she was the first major speaker of the day. The night before, Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, had delivered a stern speech on Middle East policy that was well-received but felt like the spinach you had to eat before you could have dessert. Afterward, Newt Gingrich got the crowd's blood moving by declaring Barack Obama "the most radical president in American history." Gingrich even entered the ballroom from the back for maximum drama — pumping hands along the way, with Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" blaring from speakers.
"We have a chance in the next three years to fundamentally reset American government ... for the first time since 1932," Gingrich told the crowd. (No one was impolite enough to remind Gingrich of his own "Contract With America," a document that was supposed to fundamentally reset American government back in 1994 when he was House minority whip. The Contract With America helped the GOP regain 54 seats in the midterm elections, but did nothing to keep Bill Clinton from sailing to a second term as president.)
It fell to poor Tony Perkins, former Louisiana representative and current head of the Family Research Council, to introduce Palin. He delivered a speech heavy on those two family-values bugaboos: abortion and gays. Perkins even went off script with an anecdote about a Marine Corps buddy who was retiring from the military. "When I joined, homosexuality was illegal," Perkins said his friend told him. "When I re-enlisted, it was optional. I want to get out now before it's mandatory!" That one slayed the crowd, but still it was Sarah they'd come to see.
Palin strode onstage in a blinding Jungle Red blazer (smart move: it looked perfect on camera) with the self-assurance of a pump-you-UP motivational speaker, someone completely at ease with rapturous standing ovations wherever she goes. In person, Palin is tremendously charismatic, radiating an itchy electricity completely at odds with her much-parodied voice. On her palm, written in Sharpie, was the phrase GEAUX SAINTS. She was pilloried for it later by some bloggers, but in person it was obviously a joke directed at those who thought she couldn't get through a speech. Still, she muffed one of her first lines: "Who Dah!" she yelled to the crowd.
They cheered anyway.
Palin delivered a crowd-pleaser of a speech in her signature style, managing to be both relentlessly upbeat and witheringly sarcastic. "The president," she said, "with all the vast nuculur experience he acquired as a community organizer ..."
"Don't retreat — reload!"
A standing ovation.
"Shoot, look at Texas — oh, shoot, I said 'shoot!'"
In a half-hour, Palin managed to zing Obama repeatedly and make some points about American energy policy ("Drill, baby, drill, not stall, baby, stall!") before leaving the stage to an uproarious standing ovation.
"Run, Sarah, run!" chanted some in the crowd, but Palin just smiled; nowhere in the speech did she hint at any future career plans in politics. Television, however, was different. Only two weeks before, the cable network TLC had announced it had signed Palin to a contract. Produced by Mark Burnett (creator of Survivor, The Apprentice and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?), the program would be titled Sarah Palin's Alaska.
Sarah Palin — less than six months ago a candidate for the second-highest office in the land — was getting her own reality show.
Howard Fineman of Newsweek called the SRLC "the central nervous system of the modern Republican Party," while The Washington Post said it was "the first legitimate cattle call of the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes." Indeed, the speakers' list was full of pols jostling to establish their conservative bona fides for the crowd, as well as taking pokes at President Barack Obama, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. (Particularly, it seemed, Pelosi.) According to organizers, 3,500 people attended, but the conference's impact was incommensurately huge; the public-affairs cable network C-SPAN broadcast live much of the weekend from the Hilton Riverside, and the national media turned out as if it were a political convention. (The results of a Saturday straw poll of the delegates were said to be the early tea leaves for the GOP presidential nomination.)
The 2010 SRLC happened at a particularly fractious time in the Republican Party. In the audience were traditional Republicans; a good number of Tea Party aficionados unallied formally with the GOP; and some with allegiances in both camps. Then there were the Ron Paul supporters — voters passionate about the Texas representative and his strict constitutionalist-isolationist stance — a group dismissed by some traditional GOPers as zealots and kooks. (A Paul donor had bought blocks of tickets to the event, which were being sold on Paul's Web site for $30 apiece in a move most assumed was an attempt to game the straw poll.)
And, finally, there was Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who found himself in hot water two weeks earlier when it was discovered $2,000 of RNC funds had been spent at a lesbian-bondage club in Southern California. Steele was scheduled to hold a fundraising dinner at Arnaud's that Thursday night, but the RNC was not in the restaurant at the appointed hour. An Arnaud's employee told Gambit that the time of the party had been moved, and the reservation changed from 50 people to 12.
Besides the ballroom speeches, attendees had their choice of breakout sessions with titles like "The Tea Party: The Rebirth of Vigilance in America," "Stamp of Approval: Using Direct Mail for Bucks and Ballots" and "Beyond the Pink: Women in Politics." Down the hall, a film festival called "Lights, Camera, Conservatives!" was underway, with DVD copies of independent documentaries projected for a crowd that was doing more schmoozing than watching. Other events included a "Taste of Louisiana" welcome dinner and a live broadcast of the Fox News program Hannity's America.
In an exhibition hall, attendees perused booths by groups like Fair Tax Nation ("Eliminate the federal tax system as we know it"), Net Boots ("We build Web sites for conservatives") and the National Organization for Marriage, which was seeking 2 million signatures for a petition demanding President Barack Obama not repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who didn't attend) had a "Team Huck" booth there, as did former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also didn't attend but was pitching hard to win the straw poll, with aides handing out free copies of his book No Apology. (An ad in the official program assured attendees, "Even though he's a Yankee, Southerners love him.") Various tables offered GOP-themed souvenirs where one could buy everything from a Ronald Reagan commemorative plaque to a bumper sticker reading FIRE PELOSI.
Paul's "Campaign for Liberty" had a table as well, stacked with literature by and about Paul and his philosophy. Gary Howard, a former New Orleanian and the Campaign for Liberty's director of communications, just laughed when asked about Saturday's straw poll. "What straw poll?" he asked mischievously.
To get to the SRLC's "Bloggers Bash," one had to go up a level from the ballroom, cross a skyway, and find a small room at the opposite end of the hotel. Inside were about 30 bloggers exchanging business cards and Twitter handles. The spread consisted of a busboy's gray tray filled with a couple dozen longnecks on ice, and the big name on hand was former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (who ended up placing dead last in the straw poll with a total of three votes).
Working the room was an energetic silver-haired man handing out business cards that said FRED WHO?. His name was Fred Karger, he had been involved in Republican politics in California for three decades; and he would be announcing his longshot candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on Saturday, he told two women from Lake Charles.
"And I'm gay," he added.
"Then I assume you're for same-sex marriage. Oh, no, no, no," one of them replied, politely handing him back his campaign literature.
Karger's platform, it turned out, also included repealing DOMA and allowing gays to serve openly in the military — two positions in direct opposition to the GOP platform. "It's a big tent," he said, smiling.
But with that set of beliefs, what attracted Karger to the GOP?
"It's in my DNA, I guess," he said.
For all the Republican star power onstage, very few speakers mingled with the public in the halls outside the conference; former Rep. J.C. Watts and Rep. Steve Scalise were two genial exceptions. Back in the ballroom, the other Friday speakers with the misfortune to follow Palin were certainly weak tea by comparison. Gov. Bobby Jindal sold Louisiana as a business and tourism destination through a glaze of flopsweat and a rat-a-tat recitation ("The eighth point I wanted to make ..."). Texas Gov. Rick Perry's smooth preacher cadence seemed entirely calculated, an ersatz Andy Griffith with a don't-mess-with-Texas undertone. And twitchy new-media guru Andrew Breitbart took the stage saying "This is the first time I've been in New Orleans that I wasn't drunk" (a few polite chuckles over disapproving silence).
Saturday brought more Louisianans to the podium, including Reps. Rodney Alexander and John Fleming, as well as Anh "Joseph" Cao, who only a year and a half ago was being praised by House minority leader John Boehner in a memo called "The Future is Cao."
In the present, Cao was finding the SRLC a tough room, disinclined to forgive and forget the fact he was the sole GOP member to initially vote "yes" for the president's health care. The Washington Post's David Weigel reported Cao's lambasting by Kim Hasney, a former supporter from Jefferson Parish: "He had fundraisers, he had meetings, all in the suburbs — the white suburbs," Hasney said in Weigel's account. "We got him elected. Then, he goes and says 'But I have to represent my district' — which is all liberal, giveaway, spread-the-wealth, welfare, black."
Much more welcome was Sen. David Vitter, who was introduced by Andy Guinn, co-chairman of the SRLC, as a man who "fights every day for Louisiana and our families." Vitter received a standing ovation as he took the stage. Vitter — whose re-election campaign seems predicated on defining himself as the anti-Obama — knocked the president and praised Palin with one odd line: "I'll take a TV personality over a community organizer any day."
The crowd cheered.
That evening, the straw poll results were announced. Romney beat Paul by exactly one vote; each man took 24 percent of the total. The next-highest result was also a tie: Gingrich and Palin, each with 18 percent. But Paul, Gingrich, Palin and the rest could take heart. The winner of the last SRLC straw poll, in 2006, was Bill Frist, the former senator who's largely now a footnote outside his home state of Tennessee.
John McCain, the eventual nominee, had come in fifth.