I couldn't worm my way inside, but the assembled Romney supporters, I am told, gasped, booed, yelped and wept when he "suspended" his campaign today. It is odd, though, that none of them immediately understood where Mitt was going with his reference to Ronald Reagan's quixotic 1976 presidential campaign. Said the morose Mormon: "You are with me all the way to the convention. Fight on, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1976." The fight continues! Wait did he say 1976? In other words, I'll see you guys in 2012, though such historical nuance was apparently lost on the room full of seals, conditioned to clap maniacally at any invocation of Reagan. (Credit where credit is due: The very perceptive Byron York predicted that Romney would quit a few hours before he dropped out, noting a precipitous drop in the number of campaign spam emails in the previous day.)
Out in the hotel lobby, it's clear that the news of Mitt's abdication is the source of some distress, especially amongst his young supporters and the party's nativist faction. (As one bemused journalist pointed out to me, the McCain-is-a-Quisling crowd, holding hastily constructed "No Amnesty" signs, were almost completely ignored by conference attendees—with the exception of the assembled television crews who immediately swarmed). One college-age Romnyite, who travelled from Colorado to offer moral support, told me that she found a quiet corner after the speech and wept. Another, barely holding back tears, swallowed hard and told me: "I feel like I was just hit by a bus. This is the worst day of my life." How on earth Romney can inspire this level of devotion, and induce such feelings of betrayal, remains a mystery. But others quickly swapped out their Romney regalia for McCain gear, slipping back into the packed hall to await instructions from their new leader.
Before McCain went on, an anxious crowd of doughy men and overly made-up women fidgeted through a rousing speech by Dick Armey, though the many oblique invocations of Friedman—"we must be free to choose"—were completely lost on the crowd, which responded with lukewarm, slightly impatient applause. After introductions from two rock-ribbed righties, Senator Tom Coburn and former Senator George Allen, the crowd gave McCain a decent reception, though this was likely helped by his legion of supporters, who stacked the deck in his favor by staking out seats in advance. Fair enough, I suppose.
Surprisingly, most of the professional conservatives in my section applauded the speech graciously (and sometimes lustily), including the pint-sized social conservative Gary Bauer. Most would later argue that McCain hit a number of right notes in his speech; a hat tip to social conservatives (just a week after telling the Washington Post that "It's not social issues I care about") and a reference to FISA, bellowing that the "shameful and dangerous" Senate Democrats "are blocking an extension of surveillance powers that enable our intelligence and law enforcement to defend our country against radical Islamic extremists." A huge applause line. But immigration is soon broached…and he is met with hearty boos.
In my line of sight, the two righties who were clearly displeased by the day's events were talk radio host Laura Ingraham and former House Majority Leader Tom Delay. Both stood to the side of the stage throughout McCain's speech scowling, never clapping. Delay managed a brief round of applause when McCain muttered something about his love of fetuses but even that seemed grudging. But McCain's best/most awkward moment was when he congratulated Romney, a man he deeply dislikes, on running an "energetic and dedicated campaign"—a compliment on par with Spinal Tap being celebrated as "Britain's loudest band."