The Conservative Political Action Conference, which I am attending in Washington, shows the very best and the awful worst of the American right. I had never attended one of these before and wasn't sure what to expect. Part of me expected to be appalled by a predominance of so-called "religious right" groups. I have been pleasantly surprised. Apart from a twenty two year olf who confidently asserted that he would pray for my redemption and that he had the self discipline to banish lustful thoughts from his mind, I haven't really seen any evidence of what I feared. In fact, quite the reverse.
However, having gone round the conference centre this afternoon asking people who they would like to see as the Republican candidate in 2008 it was clear that Giuliani has a lot to do to appease the social conservatives. One lady told me she wouldn't vote for Giuliani because he wanted to take away her gun. I gently pointed out he was a proven leader and had a great record on crime in New York, but she wasn't going to be persuaded. Despite that, I detected Giuliani had a narrow lead here.
Mitt Romney was the other favourite. He seems to be the only one who can reach across the whole Republican Party and find allies on all wings. Perhaps it's his tendency to flip-flop on social issues which is helping him. Curious but true. The other curious thing about Romney is that none of his campaign volunteers here were willing to tell me why they supported him. To a man and woman they chanted a mnatra of being told not to speak to the media. A strange way to run a campaign when you instruct your volunteers not to tell you why they think you are great. In the end I ended up interviewing a dressed up dolphin called Flip Romney. Geddit? One of the more surreal experiences of my fledgling interviewing career.
Tonight I went to the Conference Gala banquet at which Vice President Dick Cheney was the star guest, along with former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. Cheney is not an inspiring orator. He doesn't speak, he growls. But he did come up with one good line...
"No nation has ever taxed its way to prosperity."
He made a powerful case for the continuing presence of US troops in Iraq. John Bolton, on the other hand, veered from the sensible to the lunatic. I share his criticism of the UN. He said that the US paid for 22% of the costs of the UN and pointed out that to win a vote in the UN you need 97 votes. If you add the total financial contributions of the bottom 97 UN members you'd find that they contribute 0.3% of its budget. Always nice to spend other people's money, isn't it? He advocated a system of voluntary contributions, which would make the UN more accountable to its members.
But he lost my respect when he appeared to advocate a US intervention in North Korea, designed to bring about the reunification of North and South Korea. He also made clear his view that the US should prepare to use military action against Iran. I would certainly not rule that out, but he seemed to positively salivate at the thought. I suppose the concept of 'military overstretch' is not one that he has conjured with too much. He also criticised America's European allies - two words which he almost spat out - and said that if they didn't like what America was doing "it was too damned bad".
It is safe to say that John Bolton is not my favourite American politician.
Tomorrow there will be speeches from Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. Interestingly Giuliani and McCain (despite his announcing his candidacy on Letterman last night) have no campaign presence here at all. Either they think the people here will never vote for them or it is a sign of a lack of organisation. Either way, they cannot afford to ignore the acitivists at this conference. It'll be interesting to see how Giuliani is received tomorrow.
UPDATE: A rather different take on John Bolton's speech can be seen HERE from my 18 Doughty Street colleague Shane Greer. Never let it be said that we sing from the same hymn sheet!