WASHINGTON -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's address before the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday morning was designed to amplify some obvious strengths: a background in business, the perception of a competent executive and the willingness to throw a few partisan jabs for personal political betterment.
The crowd ate it up.
Outside the halls, however, a different rationale for a Romney candidacy was being pushed by supporters. The Massachusetts Republican, they said, is the polar opposite of Sarah Palin.
"Intelligence versus not-so-intelligent," was the pitch by Ken Merritt, a Virginia-based Romney supporter with roots in Palin's home state of Alaska. "Fluff versus not about fluff ... [Palin] does a great show on TV, though."
Swipes like these have been common during this year's gathering of conservative activists. A no-show at CPAC for several years running, Palin has been a popular subject among the convention crowd, her absence interpreted either as an innocent scheduling conflict or, more often, evidence that she doesn't feel the need to placate conservative voters.
Even absent from the convention, Palin is getting more attention than the "anti-Palin." When an impersonator of the former Alaska governor showed up to roam the halls, delivering ironic quotes in a poorly-executed Alaskan accent, the symbolism was hard to ignore: The fake Palin was drawing as much gawking as the real Romney.
It's an irritant to some.
"I would much rather have him than Palin," said Bradley Gunther, a student at the University of Delaware whose college Republican group organized buses to Washington for the conference. "I think she is a good spokesperson for the conservative movement. She's like Howard Dean for the Democrats: she gets people fired up but can't win an election."
At conventions past, it would be hard to solicit critiques like these. Palin remains a cult figure among conservatives, and the prospect of offending her legion of followers has persuaded many career-conscious GOP operatives to bite their tongues or, perhaps more often, speak on condition of anonymity.
But the tone has changed here at CPAC 2011. Even before the convention, former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum caused a stir when he suggested that demands with "financial benefit" kept the Alaska Republican from attending. He would later backtrack.
For Romney, Palin may be just the foil he needs to distinguish himself among the Republican presidential aspirants at CPAC. He's perceived by many conservatives here as a pretender, an empty suit waiting to be filled with whatever the polls suggest is popular. Romney's previous primary loss to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also left some CPAC attendees sour on his chances of a follow-up bid.
"He didn't win in '08," said Marilyn Dahl of Buffalo. "Who would want him to run now?"
Palin, backers say, helps alleviate that. Next to her, they claim, Romney has the aura of a more competent politician, more capable of winning a White House contest. Dahl acknowledged that "money talks," and Romney has lots of it.
And while Romney may be tarred as a flip-flopper, supporters chalk his flexible positions up to an intellectual rigor that they say should be applauded, and that others -- like, say, Palin -- lack.
"He does go deeper into policy than any other candidate, and sometimes going deeper into policy, because he is so much more conversant, can give the perception that he's not perfectly consistent," Merritt said. "But what's not to like about him? He has the experience and credentials to know what he's doing as well as a business background and an organizational background. He is obviously the most intellectually-gifted one in the pack."
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