For the second year in a row America’s conservative convention CPAC  — the Conservative Political Action Conference — chose libertarian Ron Paul as its preferred Republican candidate for president in the gathering’s “straw poll”.

Attended by more than 10,000 geeks, freaks, wimps and blimps, Romneyites, Paultards, Palinodes and the like, the convention’s straw poll used to be seen as a reasonable measure of who the Right wing of the Republican Party — now about 85% of the party at a rough guess — favoured for president.

But for the last two years, the Paulites have turned up and voted in numbers which well exceed their national presence, thus rendering the result useless. This year, both Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee avoided the convention (Palin has never attended), and others may do so if the Paulites continue to use it as a place to drive publicity.

That will be all the more likely if the growing friction between the Paulites and the mainstream Right keeps up. Radically anti-federal government and anti-foreign war, the Paulites have always seen themselves as something of an insurgency within the Republicans — and they’re a rainbow coalition of nerdy besuited tax libertarians, backwoods free-staters, and Pearl Jam tribute band types who would otherwise be found on the Left.

This year, they’re running around with “Campaign for Liberty” badges, increasingly unwilling to toe the line. When, unbelievably, Donald Rumsfeld appeared to get, double unbelievably, a “defender of the constitution” award, to be presented by, totally predictably, Dick Cheney, the Paulites openly heckled both of them, calling Cheney a “draft dodger” and Rumsfeld a “war criminal”.

But the Paulites got some back too, with Donald Trump — who, as David Brooks remarked, may throw his hair into the ring as a candidate — yelling back at them from the podium that “Ron Paul can’t win”.

That is true enough, but they can create a lot of mayhem in the interim. The usual routine by the Right is to make all sorts of noise about no more “business as usual” and then close ranks in the election season — something made easier this time by the fact that most of their righteous outrage is directed against a black liberal president. They seem undisturbed by the Republican leadership’s sudden retreat from their promises to cut $100 billion from the budget — now down to $61 billion, and falling fast, as the special interests crowd in.

Nevertheless, the field is so wide open for 2012, with everyone from governors like Haley Barbour (a bloke) through Palin and Mitt Romney to black Republican superstar Herman Cain, and Obama’s former China ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. Should a significant section of the Paulites and others see insufficient difference between Obama and the frontrunners on questions of tax, the state, wars and the frikkin gold standard, they may decide their best role is to maximise chaos in their own party and punish middle-of-the-roaders.

Mind you, don’t hold your breath. At the session, showing a pre-release peak of the film version of Atlas Shrugged — made in three parts — a room full of 80 rugged Ayn Randian individualists couldn’t get the digital projector to work. Given that their number once included Alan Greenspan, it explains a lot about the last few years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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