The Republican presidential candidates won't argue their cases to thousands of conservatives gathered in Washington until Friday when Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scheduled to speak.
(Ron Paul is skipping the event.)
But if Thursday's opening day of the American Conservative Union's annual star-studded Conservative Political Action Conference — CPAC — is any indication, they all have a lot of persuading to do.
The excitement that infused the party after huge congressional victories in 2010 has given way to uncertainty about the party's fate come fall, debates about the meaning of "electability," and a palpable dissatisfaction with the GOP stable of presidential hopefuls.
The party's "meh" moment, and its resistance to embracing the well-funded Romney, was best encapsulated by a panel branded "Game On!" but consumed by the issue that is likewise consuming the party: Should Republicans go with a candidate deemed "electable" or go with a candidate who is, literally, right on the issues?
Moderated by pollster Scott Rasmussen, it featured the influential conservative voices of RedState.com's Erick Erickson, Washington Times political writer Ralph Hallow, and Faith and Freedom Coalition chief Ralph Reed.
They minced no words, and Romney, who has promoted himself as the candidate best able to oust President Obama, can't be happy about any of them.
If the party goes with a candidate based on electability rather than issues, "we are setting ourselves up to lose an election we should win," Erickson warned.
Hallow said that unless the nominee has a message that can be conveyed in three words, "I don't think we have a chance." Romney, he noted, has an agenda 40 pages long. "This is not how you do it."
"We need our leaders to plant their feet in concrete and take a stand," Reed said. Romney, he said, has "run as an economic turnaround artist" and needs to talk more about family and faith.
At times, the panel, held in a packed ballroom, felt part encounter group, part call to arms. And, indeed, Reed noted that the onstage discussion was being echoed in private conversations and kaffeeklatsches everywhere.
Reed expressed his preference for Santorum's message, characterizing it as asserting that restoring America's economic strength begins with restoring America's "marriages and families."
That faith and family message resonates most with these convention conservatives, who gave a rousing welcome Thursday to presidential also-rans Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.
Santorum, fresh off success in three state presidential caucuses, and, perhaps, Gingrich, too, will most likely get similar receptions tomorrow. It will be Romney, the nominal but newly weakened front-runner, for whom Friday's stakes are highest and whose message will be the most closely watched.
In an afternoon panel, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg said he thinks Romney is an "honest and decent man" but noted that he is not connecting with the base. Romney says the right things, Goldberg said, but it sounds like "Spock reading a love letter."
Goldberg's comments came when the panel he was on was asked about potential for a brokered convention. The base, said radio host Roger Hedgecock, wants to see "more items on the menu."
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