COMMENTS: Conservative Political Action

CPAC, the annual inside-the-Beltway conference for conservative political activists, hogged headlines as the top two Republican Presidential candidates made speeches. Mitt Romney was the Story of the Day, leading all three newscasts, with his unexpected announcement that he was withdrawing from the race. That left John McCain as the presumptive nominee--so his speech was the launch of his effort to solidify support from the GOP base in the General Election. Meanwhile it was a sad day at ABC. Former national security correspondent John McWethy died, killed in a Colorado skiing accident, aged 60.

"Even many on Romney's own staff were caught by surprise" by his withdrawal, CBS' Chip Reid reflected. ABC's John Berman (embargoed link) singled out Romney's rationale, a "provocative even biting claim" that equated the Democratic contenders with terrorists: "In this time of war I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." Berman called it "a decision based on principle" namely that his continued challenge would weaken McCain, making a Democratic victory in November more likely, and a Democrat in the White House would be a victory for al-Qaeda.

ABC's Berman was skeptical. "It was also a decision based on facts. Romney was far, far behind McCain in the hunt for delegates." He spent $40m of his own money to win contests in eleven states. During the contest McCain "often feuded bitterly with Romney," CBS' Reid noted. NBC's Ron Allen observed that McCain at times "could barely conceal his disdain for Romney." Allen suggested that Romney "never overcame the flip-flopper label on key issues." Berman listed abortion, gay rights and gun control. In addition, Mike Huckabee "siphoned away conservative votes" and Romney's "Mormon faith might have also hurt him" among evangelical Christians.

Yet Romney did not so much put an end to his Presidential aspirations as kick them down the road four years. NBC's David Gregory saw him styling himself after Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Barry Goldwater in 1960. Both were defeated for the nomination and returned four years later to win. Both ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Tim Russert saw Romney as making the first speech of Campaign 2012. "Has Romney fired the first shot in a new war for the future of the party, a war that could undermine McCain's ability to unite Republicans and win in November?" wondered Gregory.


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