McCain at CPAC

The GOP’s front runner addresses conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Committe’s conference Thursday at 3 pm in Washington. He’ll follow Mitt Romney by a few hours, as Romney addresses CPAC at 12:30. Mike Huckabee has been relegated to the Saturday slot, when most CPACers will be heading home.

Thursday’s speech is obviously high stakes for both Romney and McCain, though given the state of the race it’s more of an opportunity for the latter than the former. Romney has done well of late in winning over conservative pundits and voters, mostly by not being John McCain. McCain has continued to rack up primary wins without winning majorities of either Republican or conservative voters but it’s tough to imagine him winning the general election if the Republican right is sitting home. We can sort out the wherefores and whys McCain keeps winning without taking the majority of conservative votes at some future date, but right now I’m more interested in anticipating what McCain will do when he addresses CPAC.

Last year, McCain was the only major GOP candidate to skip CPAC. All of the other candidates attended and addressed the conference to make their pitches for conservative support. They were all received warmly. The buzz last year was that McCain was intentionally snubbing conservatives by staying away from the conference, and that left a lot of bad blood that’s still lingering. Add in McCain’s various non-conservative transgressions over the years plus the fact that he’s winning the GOP nomination largely without conservative support and you have the makings of a very interesting moment in the campaign. What will McCain do with it?

Will he take up Mary Matalin’s suggestions and essentially announce that he’s going to conservative school?

** announcing in his CPAC speech that he is leaving CPAC and going straight to Newt’s for a comprehensive tutelage on “Real Change.”

** adopting Fred’s immigration plan and Rudy’s tax plan;

** announcing that he would establish a Cabinet-level Domestic Policy Czar who will report directly to him, be housed in the White House, and would would oversee and consolidate all the “soft Cabinets.” This would be followed by the announcement that he planned to name Jeb Bush as the czar;

** announcing Ted Olson as attorney general;

** announcing George Allen as secretary of the Treasury;

** recognizing that Romney has made and could put blue states in play, and is relentlessly optimistic about America. Therefore he would install him as RNC general chairman to traverse the country and chatterati shows as the 21st century face of conservatism.

I think the first point is DOA. McCain is winning without capitulating to anyone, so he may figure why start now? The second point, he’ll take Rudy’s tax plan but reject Fred’s immigration plan. He also won’t say a word about the open borders zealots on his campaign unless someone asks him about them, and when that happens he’ll dodge the question or, depending on who asks it and in what setting it’s asked, crush the questioner. Ted Olson as Atty Gen seems a lock and would be a good choice, though the Democrat Congress would fight him hammer and tong on that. I’m not sure I get the point of the “Cabinet czar” other than to create yet another layer of bureaucracy. It’s probably a non-starter anyway, and too arcane to make any difference if he did do that. And McCain evidently loathes Mitt Romney, so it’s unlikely that McCain would hand Romney any prominent office. Remember, Romney managed for profit, not patriotism in McCain’s view. So the points that require McCain to step outside himself all strike me as DOA.

So what will he do? I see one of two scenarios playing out.

Nice John McCain shows up, makes conciliatory sounds about having “gotten the message” on conservative issues, promises to change but still has in his back pocket that statement he made after South Carolina about not having actually changed any of his positions. Nice McCain won’t really fool anyone, but he won’t be trying to, he’ll just make the plausible case that the Democrats are too weak to be trusted in a time of war. The fact that he’s apparently using some sort of resurrected Reagan to introduce him at CPAC suggests that this may be the way he’s going.

But there is another plausible scenario. Mean John McCain shows up and uses CPAC to create his own Sister Souljah moment. Think about it. He’s winning without conservatives now by attracting independents and centrist Democrats, though his TV ads and campaign rhetoric all cast him as the Reaganite in the race. CPAC isn’t large; there might be 5,000 or 6,000 in attendance this year. CPAC is made up of serious conservatives who could easily be painted as “radical” or “intolerant” even though they’re not. McCain snubbed CPAC last year. He could come this year to announce, essentially, that he doesn’t need them this year. The MSM would love it and he would get tremendous buzz over the short term and he could use it as a “new kind of Republican” talking point all the way to November.

I think the first scenario is much more likely than the second. He’ll make conciliatory sounds but underneath will be the same John McCain, secure in his own mind that he’s winning without conservatives so there’s no reason to change anything for them. But the second is plausible, unfortunately. McCain does have a history of slamming the right, and he’s probably egotistical enough to get carried away with himself and try something dramatic. And other than costing him a few thousand votes he already can’t count on and the support of pundits who are already skeptical of him, what’s the down side? In his mind, I mean. I’m not sure that he sees any reason to listen to conservatives who are discontented with him at this point. So Thursday will be interesting, to say the least.