Updated twice below
I've been highly critical of Romney's campaign for the last four months. I find it tremendously hard to believe that a candidate who was fundraising and voting for Democrats fifteen years ago and arguing that he was to the left of Ted Kennedy would ever be able to secure support from the activist Republican base. His history and image makes him a ripe target for opposition research and there are just too many videos on YouTube of Romney contradicting himself to believe that people will buy him as a conservative. Frankly, I've been ready to call Romney's candidacy dead for quite some time (the Fox News poll showing him at 3% nationally definitely furthered my thinking on that point).
I didn't expect a very positive response to Romney at CPAC. This audience is made up of some of the most informed voters in the conservative coalition (a fact that will come up later in this post) and information isn't Romney's friend. News had already broke that Romney was paying to bring dozens of students to come to CPAC to get them to get to vote for him in the conference straw poll.
All of that set me up to be proved wrong by the audiences' response to Romney and I was. Romney fed the audience a steady diet of red meat: pledges to cut taxes and reduce the size of the government, anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-abortion lines, and promises to continue to block efforts to legalize gay marriage.
Despite loud applause on many of the tax lines, the purchased student fans were pretty much invisible. Not much sign waving or foam mitt waving, even though Romney paid to bring them to the event. But the rub of that is that the applause he was getting seemed very organic and not canned.
The point seems to be, as one person I spoke with said, that conservatives don't have a problem with conversion stories like Romney's. He's seen the light and now he is ideologically where they want him to be. That's what will likely matter to the Republican base, even if McCain, Giuliani, and other Republican opponents run flip-flop videos on YouTube or have someone dress up in a dolphin costume to walk around CPAC.
Romney did pick up Ann Coulter's endorsement today. After her panel, a questioner asked who she would pick amidst the Republican field and Coulter replied that "He [Romney] is probably our best candidate." She added, "Romney tricked liberals into voting for him. I like a guy who hoodwinks liberals so easily." [Andrew Sullivan confirms this quote.]
Of course, Coulter's more notable comment wasn't about Romney, but Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word "Faggot." The CPAC audience hooted and hollered their approval of Coulter's blatant homophobia, something that they knew would likely manifest itself during her talk.
Earlier in his speech, Romney said, "I'm happy to learn that after I speak you're going to hear from Ann Coulter. That's a good thing. I think it's important to get the views of moderates." It is truly shameful that Romney thinks it's a good thing for Coulter to spew her bigotry at anyone, let alone a candidate for the presidency. Does Mitt Romney agree with Coulter's homophobia? Does he think there's something wrong with being gay, as Coulter clearly does? Romney values Coulter's support because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, "she reflects [the] true impulses" of the conservative movement." It is the same part of the conservative movement that is in attendance at CPAC every year and it is who Romney came to court and Coulter came to speak to.
Not surprisingly, Mitt Romney's campaign website printed only excerpts of his CPAC remarks. Praise for Ann Coulter isn't something that Romney would actually want the whole world to know about, only the select few true conservatives at CPAC. That didn't stop Romney from releasing the full text of his speech to RedState.com, which they dutifully published. Surprisingly it was not scrubbed of Romney's praise for Coulter or his joking approval of her as a moderate.
To go with the homophobia by Romney's most famous supporter, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist introduced Romney. Norquist's family is originally from Massachusetts, a fact that Norquist reminded the CPAC audience during his introduction of Romney. "He's from my home state of Massachusetts, before my family emigrated to America."* Norquist went on to praise Romney's accomplishments by again belittling the state of Massachusetts, "He has done all of this not in Texas or Florida or some normal part of the United States, but in Massachusetts." The implication is clear: Norquist thinks Massachusetts is not a real part of America.
Does Romney hate Massachusetts? Does he think it's not part of the United States of America and deserving of being the butt of jokes at CPAC? The absurdity of these questions demonstrates the comfort Romney maintains associating himself with people who speak to the most vile portions of the conservative movement and are loved for it. His appreciation of Coulter's and Norquist's support is a clear indication that his campaign wants to be defined by its proximity to hateful figures, just so long as it leverages them votes within the conservative Republican base. That's why his meat and potatoes speech at CPAC was so well received and why Romney will not place any meaningful distance between himself and cheerleaders of hate like Coulter and Norquist.
Commenter connecticutyankee at MyLeftNutmeg asks a powerful question:
I think that's a damned fine question.
I wonder if Giuliani considered the gay couple he lived with in NYC as being faggots.
I interviewed Jeff Gannon about three hours after posting on Mitt Romney's support from extremists like Ann Coulter and Grover Norquist. Gannon told me that he did not believe Coulter's phrasing meant that she actually called Edwards a faggot and refused to go so far as to even call the word "faggot" hate speech, though he added "It's not a word in my vocabulary." Gannon saw Coulter as something of a righteous comedian, "She's mocking the liberal outrage machine." No doubt she knew her comments would spark the our outrage. But knowing how to piss people off over your use of hateful language is not anything anyone should hang their hat on.
Gannon expressed identical sentiments in his interview with as ones posted on his personal blog Sunday morning. Check it out for more of his thoughts on the subject.
*All quotes included in this post is based on live transcription. I cannot assert they are 100% accurate.
Follow Matt Browner Hamlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mattkbh