Vaughn Ververs is the Senior Political Editor for CBSNews.com
Mitt Romney seems to be having a hard time catching a break lately. The former Massachusetts Governor has spent the past several weeks trying to convince Republican primary voters that he's one of them – a true-blue conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan. Because of some relatively recent conversions on key issues like abortion, Romney has his work cut out for him in winning over suspicious members of his own party as he campaigns for the 2008 presidential nomination.
So his fiery and well-received speech at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference combined with his first-place showing in that event's straw poll have to be seen as a great victory, right? Enter, Ann Coulter.
You're probably aware by now that the controversial author and commentator caused something of a stir with remarks she made about Democratic candidate John Edwards. "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards," Coulter said, "but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot.'"
What does that have to do with Romney? Nothing really, except that Coulter spoke immediately after the governor – and that he mentioned her in his speech. "I'm happy to learn," Romney told the crowd, "that after you hear me, you're going to hear from Ann Coulter. That is a good thing." Romney then joked, "I think it's always very important to get the views of moderates."
The line got a good laugh at the time, but Romney's campaign later called her comments about Edwards "offensive." Coulter's support of his candidacy likely made the association even a bit more uncomfortable. In assessing the GOP field, she said of Romney, "I think he's probably our best candidate."
All that is a minor consideration for Romney's campaign. The fact that Coulter's comments became the "big news" of the conference might be a bigger problem. Out of the 1,705 attendees who voted in CPAC's straw poll, 21% picked Romney as their first choice for the nomination. That put him in first place over former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who also spoke to the gathering.
But Coulter's remarks are obscuring that story somewhat. Yes, it's only a straw poll and the primaries are still nearly a year off. But for a candidate like Romney, who is trying to compete with household names like Giuliani and John McCain for conservative votes, every little bit helps. Instead the buzz, at least on many prominent conservative blogs, seems to be more about Coulter.
Several blogs, like Captain's Quarters, are posting an "open letter" to CPAC organizers, asking them to dump Coulter from future conferences:
Conservatism treats humans as they are, as moral creatures possessing rational minds and capable of discerning right from wrong. There comes a time when we must speak out in the defense of the conservative movement, and make a stand for political civility. This is one of those times.The blogs are talking about the straw poll, too, but it's the Coulter story which is naturally getting the most attention, and that's taking a little of the shine off of Romney's victory.
Ann Coulter used to serve the movement well. She was telegenic, intelligent, and witty. She was also fearless: saying provocative things to inspire deeper thought and cutting through the haze of competing information has its uses. But Coulter's fearlessness has become an addiction to shock value. She draws attention to herself, rather than placing the spotlight on conservative ideas.