WASHINGTON -- At last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, there were few, if any, louder receptions than the one offered for Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).
Fresh off an election victory that deprived Democrats of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Brown made a surprise appearance at CPAC 2010. It was hardly in a limelight capacity -- he was tasked solely with introducing fellow Bay-stater Mitt Romney to the stage -- but the crowd treated him like a rock star anyway, madly applauding as he declared "we have absolutely changed politics in America" and soaking it up when he said he'd driven his signature truck to the convention.
After the short speech, Brown was feted at small gathering of VIPs in a private booth overlooking the convention stage. Later, as his staff whisked him through the halls, throngs followed to ask questions or just to catch a glimpse.
Fast-forward one year, and it seems they've seen enough.
Brown is nowhere to be found at CPAC 2011. The Massachusetts Republican has distanced himself from the Tea Party crowd that shepherded him into office in January 2010, and the conference's organizers seem to have felt no compulsion to bring him back.
"I sat in a lot of meetings and I don't remember his name ever coming up," a top CPAC organizer said when asked if Brown had been invited to this year's convention.
"I don't know specifically or directly [why he isn't here]," said Tom Tripp, a board member at the American Conservative Union, the group that arranges CPAC. "I wasn't in all the meetings where we laid out the program."
No one seems all that bothered by Brown's absence. As the senator prepares for his first run for a full term in 2012, the CPAC crowd -- including the well-known operatives who mingle about -- appeared perfectly comfortable granting Brown a pass, both for his no-show and for his ideological drift on key legislative items.
"He is a hero for the modern center-right movement. He stopped the most damaging parts of Obamacare. He stopped the Obama agenda in its track from moving forward. The bill on banking is dramatically better because of his interventions and there were other votes available to do bad things and he got in and actually moved it in a much more constructive way," said Grover Norquist, president of the influential conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. "And what Brown did in Massachusetts was unexpected, brilliant, saved large portions of western civilization from certain devastation and he will be well rewarded here and hereafter for all of this good work."
It's extremely generous, of course, to suggest that Brown saved the United States from some kind of apocalypse. The grin on Norquist's face as the words left his lips left the impression that he recognized his own hyperbole.
The longtime anti-tax crusader did, however, offer some interesting thoughts as to how Brown planned on keeping conservatives at bay while dealing with his home state's more liberal-leaning political realities, including introducing tax reform proposals that Norquist said, "excite me and that others will appreciate as well."
Mainly, however, it would be the memory of 2010 that kept Brown well received among the conservative crowd. He isn't likely to be buoyed by a similar fervor next time around -- talks of a Tea Party primary will flare. But the GOP graybeards insist that the party's base won't simply throw the belle of last year's ball overboard.
"The Tea Party and other groups knew Scott Brown was not Ronald Reagan or any of these folks," said David Keene, the outgoing head of the American Conservative Union and an organizer of CPAC for more than 25 years. "They knew he was a relatively moderate Republican and that they could take out that majority, that was an effort worth mounting. And when he was elected then, some of them said: 'You know he won't vote with us all the time.' I said, 'Hell, if he gets hit by a truck tomorrow, he has already done more for you than anyone else.' So, he has done what he needs to do. He is a pretty good senator. And from Massachusetts, he is a very good senator. Will there be the enthusiasm for him? Not as much because that was a product of time and circumstance. But he will always have that moment."