WASHINGTON -- I was shooting as fast as I could, but the varmints were getting away.
Ah, the joys of CPAC. The annual conservative gathering here has grown from a tiny gathering of true believers in a suburban hotel to something that more resembles a right-wing Burning Man festival, uniting anti-tax nuts, rabid anti-choicers, fringe libertarian groups and anyone else who's ever woken up feeling flushed and sweaty after a dream about Ronald Reagan. On Friday afternoon, as a speaker entertained the crowd in the Omni Shoreham ballroom with a talk asking "Will Obama's tax policy kill entrepreneurship?" I wandered into the exhibition hall, where grass-roots organizations and political consultants had set up booths to peddle their wares or ideology to the conservatives in attendance.
And that was how I found myself at one of the National Rifle Association's several booths, playing its "Varmint Town" game, shooting animated weasels with a realistically weighted, fluorescent orange, infrared rifle, while lobbyists who work hard -- every day -- to make sure I have the right to carry an assault weapon around wherever I go watched approvingly. For a political reporter, I wasn't bad; I hit 39 of the virtual rodents, and the game informed me my shooting accuracy was a halfway respectable 43 percent. (That wasn't near good enough to crack the top 10 at CPAC, though.) Next door, the NRA passed out bright yellow Velcro-closing tote bags, in exchange for giving your e-mail address to the people behind their blog.
While the speeches drew the big headlines, the exhibit hall, and the Republican-oriented job fair attached to it, seemed to draw most of the crowd most of the time. One group was giving out enormous posters of Sarah Palin, a chirpy young blonde woman handing them over to an endless line of pasty young conservative boys in khakis. (The vast majority of the 8,500 people at CPAC seemed to be college Republican types, who erupted with joy Friday when Ron Paul took the stage.) Another, originally formed as Muslims for Bush, was passing out little blue flashlights inscribed with its new name, Muslims for America; the woman who handed me a flashlight also took pains to note, "I'm a Christian -- but I'm reading the Koran." The Susan B. Anthony List booth passed out stickers reading, "Stop the Abortion Bailout," and a staffer told me the "abortion industry" had requested $1.5 billion in federal funds (though she didn't specify whether that was part of the Troubled Assets Recovery Program, the economic stimulus or the mortgage rescue plan). Sam Wurzelbacher signed copies of his book off in a corner; everyone who approached called him "Joe," and he never corrected any of them.
A few conservative stars did manage to corral the attendees back into the ballroom. Newt Gingrich walked in for his speech, just before lunchtime, from the back of the room, shaking hands and hugging admirers like the president walking through the House chamber on his way to deliver a State of the Union speech, while "Eye of the Tiger" blared. He recommended two paranoid, apocalyptic novels for President Obama to read, one where terrorists seek to detonate a nuclear bomb at the Capitol during the State of the Union, and one where other terrorists set off an electromagnetic pulse that renders all electric devices useless. Mitt Romney, revisiting the site of his withdrawal from the GOP presidential contest a year ago, brought the red meat. "I got to get through this speech before federal officials come and arrest me for practicing capitalism," he said. Ron Paul got an ovation for complaining about U.S. involvement in World War I.
But by far the strangest moment at the podium came during a panel on "Conservative Victories in the 2008 Elections." (Yes, really.) Nineteen people -- with names like Flagg Youngblood, Spear Lancaster and Smoot Carter -- sat at the dais, and each one dashed up to the mics, delivered a two-minute speech full of right-wing clichés, and sat down again. "We are the future, fellow young conservatives," one speaker declared. "The future is the present. The present is now." True wisdom -- and also a fine mashup of "Buckaroo Banzai" and "Atlas Shrugged."
Midway through the panel, Jonathan Krohn stepped up to the mic. Krohn, the moderator informed the audience, was not only a published author, but had also had three callbacks for a Broadway production of "Mary Poppins." Jonathan Krohn, you see, is 13 years old (though he'll turn 14 on Sunday). And watching his impassioned, three-minute defense of conservative principles was like watching William F. Buckley's bar mitzvah speech.
"During the election, I noticed that there were so many people throwing around the word 'conservative' and 'liberal' and 'socialism,'" Krohn said. "So I decided that there were too many people who threw the term 'conservative' around who didn't understand what they were talking about." He waved his hands around, sometimes grimaced, and -- when impersonating people who ask him why he's a Republican -- spoke in a Muppet-sounding voice. "As I close, and as I get ready to leave, I want you to understand -- I want the American people to understand -- that conservatism is not an ideology of feelings or romanticism, as some people like to say. It is an ideology of protecting the people and the people's rights."
The vision of a pre-pubescent ex-child actor spouting conservative talking points, and winning rapturous applause, was as good a sign as any of how much trouble the conservative movement is in, six weeks into the Obama administration. After all, Krohn won't quite be old enough to vote against Obama in the 2012 election.
Watch his speech here: