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Bush narrowly lost the straw poll after Hughes said that, but talk like that helped him build momentum with conservatives. In early 2000, when his campaign was almost toppled by Sen. John McCain, Bush ramped up the "conservative" part of his pitch, worked his alliances with evangelical activists, and dubbed himself a "reformer with results." That reformer, once in the White House, was malleable enough to sign McCain's campaign finance reform bill - a bill Bush once claimed to oppose.
There's much more to this story, obviously, but the conservatives at CPAC seemed ready to tear up the whole book. Backers of the gadfly candidates like Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and (so far) Ron Paul weren't numerous or well-organized enough to push their candidates to the uncoverted. Around half of the conventioneers threw their weight behind Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The first of those two won them over simply because they could win, and the third simply because 1) he applied plenty of grease to plenty of palms and 2) in a tightly-scripted speech, he was willing to say anything they wanted to hear. "I know how to veto," said the Massachusetts governor who introduced himself to national media by signing onto a Democratic mandatory health insurance bill.
There's time yet for conservatives and libertarians to demand more from their prospective torchbearers. There's even time to shove another one into the race. (To be clear, I'm not talking about Fred Thompson.) First, we have to stop blaming a nebulous "they" for our woes and confront the mistakes that led to the endorsement and election of the current crop of rulers. Too bad that the process didn't start last week.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.