I’ve been to four CPACs, attending every one since 2007, and each one has had a different vibe.  In the first, the primary campaign had just gotten underway, and the silliness of the campaigning for the straw poll got out of hand.  John McCain snubbed conservatives that year, preferring to appear on Jay Leno’s show than at the Omni Shoreham.  Few of us thought twice about Barack Obama except as a possibility as running mate for Hillary Clinton.  In 2008, the capitulation of Mitt Romney to McCain — who showed up and apologized for his snub the previous year — deflated the conference.  Last year was introspective after the November 2008 drubbing at all levels, and that CPAC was spent wondering how to reconnect to voters — and whether we could make conservatism relevant in the near future.

Obviously, this 2010 CPAC was much, much different.  Gone are the self-doubts, washed away by the tremendous overreach of Democrats once they seized all of the reins of power.  Suddenly, conservatism and small government are not only relevant, but fiscal conservatism especially has become transcendent.  Grassroots power has challenged the establishment of both parties, and while CPAC is somewhat more establishment than the Tea Parties, it took a decidedly bottom-up view this year rather than the top-down impulse that we’ve seen before.

This year’s convention had new digs; it outgrew the stately Omni Shoreham, and instead moved to the massive Marriott Wardman Park.  That was a good move, probably a little overdue by CPAC organizers.  Access to the main room was much improved, and the extra space meant better navigation and easier walking to the various side events and breakout sessions.  Bloggers Row was simply amazing, with direct access to the main stage via a balcony and room for more than 200 participants — a far cry from the parking-garage environment that handled at best 30 bloggers.

Even better, it seemed that this year conservatives and candidates finally understand the centrality of fiscal conservatism, economic liberty, and strong national defense to building the kind of coalition that will challenge statists and big-spending incumbents of both parties.  Glenn Beck hit a perfect note when he said that the GOP needed to admit it had an addiction to big spending and pork-barrel politics.  The attendees underscored that lesson when they reacted angrily to an attack on gay conservatives on Friday, sending the speaker packing for his remarks (Students for Liberty has two videos that show the incident in its full context).  The crisis in America has arisen in the massive expansion of government control of American lives, or at least the Democrats’ attempts to make it happen, and we need as many allies as we can get to stop it.

The straw poll results were interesting, but not for the fact that Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty crowd managed to manipulate it, something we saw throughout 2007 and early 2008, too.   Putting aside the C4L push, I was surprised to see Mitt Romney come in second at CPAC with 22%, despite not having much organization at this event — or perhaps just one somewhat more subtle than Paul’s.  Sarah Palin only got 7%, perhaps a reflection of her decision to snub the event rather publicly and deliberately.  Tim Pawlenty, who gave a good speech, came in a surprising fourth just behind Palin at 6%.   Mike Huckabee tied for sixth place on the poll, behind Rep. Mike Pence and even with Newt Gingrich, who also gave a good speech.  I would have predicted a win for Palin here, especially with the momentum of the Tea Parties behind her.

The presidential straw poll is at best a sideshow.  Most people here weren’t thinking about 2012; they were working on 2010.  Expect that focus to sharpen even more as the fired-up activists return home with a renewed sense of mission and an explosion of energy.  The CPAC attendees think they may make history in November, and it’s hard not to agree with that assessment.  This looks to be the most successful CPAC I’ve attended.