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While 11 states were voting during last week’s “Super Tuesday” primaries, I was braving the New Jersey Turnpike on the way to CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Run by the American Conservative Union, CPAC is the annual pilgrimage for thousands of American conservatives to meet and discuss ideas and policies, listen and learn from other conservatives, meet with candidates, and “recharge” their batteries for the upcoming twelve months.

CPAC 2016 was different—not the program, but the mood. This year’s event was probably better planned then the seven previous CPACs I’ve attended and was kept running much closer to schedule.  The atmosphere seemed heavy this year; there was a pall in the air, the crowd was subdued, almost as if the attendees were waiting for something to happen.

As I was going through the crowd on Thursday informally interviewing the attendees, it became evident that this was a Ted Cruz crowd. However, walking through “radio row,” the set-up for the dozens of remote radio broadcasts from CPAC, the two key questions heard over and over were “Will there be an open convention?” and “Will you vote for Trump if he is the nominee?” Indeed, in my three radio interviews and one television appearance, those were the first questions I was asked (my answers were: probably not on brokered convention and I will make up my mind after the convention on the Trump issue).

Fox’s Sean Hannity, the final speaker that day, urged the crowd to vote for the Republican nominee whoever that is. Hannity also hosted the debate watch party that night and conducted an informal “raise your hands,” poll of the gathering, confirming that Cruz was the number one choice of the crowd, followed by Rubio, Kasich and Trump, in that order.

While the ballroom was filled with CPAC goers watching the GOP debate on Thursday night, the buzz began to spread that Donald Trump wasn’t going to receive a warm welcome from the when he appeared on Saturday.

William Temple, a man famous at CPAC for wearing a Founding Fathers costume each year (pictured above), was planning to lead a mass walkout during the Trump speech on Saturday morning. Temple led a successful walkout during Jeb Bush’s 2015 speech, so it wasn’t an idle threat.

Another protest was to be held inside the ballroom during Trump’s speech. Attendees were planning on chanting “No Trump,” or “Never Trump” while sitting in their seats (to avoid raising the ire of Trump’s Secret Service protectors).

A third contingent of protests was planned for outside the Gaylord National Harbor hotel where the conference was being held. On Friday morning, in anticipation of the Trump appearance the next day, the Secret Service had taken over CPAC security: two walk-through magnetometers were set up, bags were checked, and bodies were double-checked with hand-held scanning devices. Ironically, this pro-Second Amendment crowd was greeted with a sign saying, “Notice Metal Detectors In Use Absolutely No Weapons Allowed.”

The Secret Service had under-estimated the crowd. By 9 a.m., the the line to get through security had reached back to the hotel lobby and people were waiting over an hour and a half to get into the conference. Therefore, through no fault of their own, the CPAC organizers were greeted with venom from people who paid between $70 and $5,000 to get into the event.

Secret-Service-screw-up

Most of Friday saw the ballroom less than full, as thousands were trying to get through the added security. Perhaps the biggest cheer of the day was for the announcement that Donald Trump had backed out and the Secret Service (who were only doing their duty) would not be returning on Saturday.

Friday was the beginning of the march of the Republican presidential candidates, featuring Ohio Gov. John Kasich , Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and retired surgeon Dr. Ben Carson .

Kasich reviewed his qualifications, promised he was gaining popularity in the remaining primary states, and predicted an open convention:

“I don’t think anybody is going to get that,” the presidential contender said Friday when asked if someone will win the majority of delegates ahead of July’s convention. “As crazy as this year is — there’s no one here who would say this isn’t nuts — can you think about anything cooler than a convention?”

It was after the Kasich speech that word began to filter throughout the room that Trump had canceled (it was later confirmed by the event organizers). Interestingly, about the same time, the pall lifted and the crowd seemed to become energized.  While it cannot be proven, the timing suggests the possibility the Trump appearance was depressing the attendees, and since he was no longer attending, the CPAC crowd could now enjoy themselves.

As expected, Cruz slammed Trump, first for cancelling his scheduled CPAC appearance, saying that Trump must have heard that Megyn Kelly, conservatives, libertarians, or young people would be there.  The crowd went wild. He then turned to Trump’s politics:

“It’s easy to talk about making America great again — you can even put that on a baseball cap. But do you understand the principles that make America great in the first place?”

Cruz disagreed with Kasich on the matter of an open convention, saying it was the GOP “establishment’s way of trying to deny the people their right to select their candidate.”

There were a few isolated voices trying to chant “Trump, Trump, Trump,” during the Cruz speech, but they were quickly drowned out by the audience’s booing.

Cruz also went after presumptive Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton saying she should get used to “orange pant suits” in case she’s indicted in the email scandal and that, for the first time ever, a general election debate may be “convened in Leavenworth.”

When Dr. Ben Carson used his CPAC time to announce he was officially suspending his campaign, he received a standing ovation by a crowd thankful for this man who received little support for his candidacy, recognizing his service to humanity as a surgeon and the goodness of his heart as demonstrated throughout the campaign.

With the absence of Trump, the final day’s activities were abbreviated, but still featured three big events.

The first was a rousing speech by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio .  Interestingly, Rubio’s speech was the first time the convention hall was filled to capacity.  As with all the candidates, Rubio was questioned by a mainstream news reporter after his address. The senator was interviewed CNN’s Dana Bash. Bash was admonished by the candidate and booed by the audience because four out of the first five questions she asked were about Donald Trump.  At one point, there was a voice from the crowd who screamed that she should ask him about his policies.

The results of the CPAC straw poll were announced the last day. Cruz was the winner of the poll. Except for 2012, every CPAC straw poll had been won by either Ron or Rand Paul. And before Cruz fans get too excited, only three times in the 41 years of CPAC has the straw poll winner become the GOP nominee. The straw poll is fun for the attendees, and great fodder for the mainstream media, but meaningless beyond that.

The keynote speaker who closed the conference was Glenn Beck, who was also the keynote speaker in 2010. More than the exact words of his address, the theme of Beck’s speech was a commentary on the differences between the 2010 mid-terms and 2016 campaign.

Six years ago, the Beck speech was structured around the famous Ronald Reagan speech, “It’s morning in America.” This year it was structured around the children’s book, Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory,” which for anyone who watched Thursday night’s debate a children’s book seemed very appropriate.

But Beck’s speech wasn’t meant as a general criticism of the 2016 campaign – he was going after one specific candidate.

“In Roald Dahl’s world, whenever you get a golden ticket, a Slugworth always shows up,” Beck said, referring to the bad guy in the book who wanted to buy Charlie’s golden ticket: “Whenever you are given that one thing that you want — the freedom, the thing that you hoped and wished for, the thing that represents magic — a Slugworth is always there.” Beck then described Slugworth as “the businessman with a wry smile and pockets full of cash there to tempt Charlie, offering to buy the boy’s virtue – a chance to double your good fortune and exploit the opportunity that fate has given him.”

He got even more pointed when he said, “We cannot lose [the conservative] movement to a hostile take-over by a charming Slugworth with pockets full of cash,” completing his attack on the GOP frontrunner.

CPAC 2016 was a microcosm of the GOP race. In the first half, it seemed as if the anticipation of Donald Trump’s arrival had sucked the air out of the conference. Even after he canceled, the conference was split between those who attacked the front-runner and those who tried to play nice, between those who wanted a contested open convention and those who didn’t.

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