It was billed as a battle for the soul of the conservative movement, with right-wingers ardently debating the future of their cause and their dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republican nominee John McCain.
But it turns out that in this season of left vs. right, there’s not much interest in right vs. right.
Just 60 people attended the Conservative Leadership Conference in Las Vegas on Friday, and many of the speakers at conservative activist Chuck Muth’s second annual convention have canceled.
“After 650 people pre-registered, I had to get a bigger room,” Muth said. But they didn’t come, and the big banquet hall at the Tuscany Suites Hotel Casino was filled with rows of mostly empty tables. “They still may all show up on Saturday,” he said hopefully.
Hundreds came to Muth’s inaugural gathering in Reno last year, including some big names. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who at the time was a presidential candidate seeking Nevada’s votes in the Republican primary, was among the speakers.
Libertarian Party presidential nominee Bob Barr is scheduled to speak today at the gathering, but perennial presidential candidate Alan Keyes, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth and Constitution Party presidential nominee Jim Clymer were late scratches from the schedule.
Rep. John Shadegg, scheduled to receive the Barry Goldwater Award tonight, couldn’t make the banquet at the last minute, and was scheduled to stop by Friday night instead.
Muth, a regular rabble-rouser in Nevada politics, started the conference as a Western forum for libertarian conservative ideas. He is a former Republican who quit the party out of frustration that it wasn’t representing his small-government ideals.
He’s still troubled by the prospect of voting for McCain in November due to McCain’s record on issues like campaign-finance reform, but doesn’t want a third-party vote to hand the election to Democrat Barack Obama.
“It’s a debate that’s raging within the conservative movement. A lot of people are sick of voting for the lesser of two evils,” Muth said. “We vote for Republicans who say they’re conservatives, and then we get prescription drugs and No Child Left Behind. A lot of Republicans would like to paper over these divisions and say they don’t exist, but they’re there.”
Friday morning featured a debate between Wayne Allyn Root, a Las Vegas oddsmaker who is Barr’s running mate on the Libertarian ticket, and Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, moderated by Grover Norquist, the Washington power player who is president of Americans for Tax Reform.
The irrepressible Root sought to convince attendees that voting for a third party wouldn’t be throwing away a vote, while Anuzis argued that working within the GOP was the best way to pursue conservative principles.
Root decried government spending under Bush, the Iraq war and violations of civil liberties. “The Republican Party every year trots out people who sound libertarian, they fool all of us, and then they govern like big-government liberals,” he said.
Anuzis said he agreed with pretty much everything Root said, but after an idealistic youth, he said, “at a certain age I decided I wanted to be able to actually get things done.”
One conference attendee, an elderly woman who didn’t want her name used, was once a Republican donor of sufficient stature that she dined with President Bush in Washington. She described herself as “disillusioned.”
“I feel he (Bush) has just hit us in the gut with this excessive government spending and the lack of proper information about the war. I feel used.”
She said she’s leery of McCain but also worried about liberals taking power, and doesn’t know what to do in November.
“These are obviously very contradictory feelings, but maybe that’s true of a lot of people,” she said.
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.