ROMNEY
Greg Campbell  /  AP
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at the opening session of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis on Friday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/11/2006 1:47:13 PM ET 2006-03-11T18:47:13

At the first major gathering of the 2008 Republican presidential contenders outside of Washington D.C., Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s rivals were having some fun at his expense Friday.

Supporters of both John McCain -- the Arizona senator and a perceived top tier GOP candidate -- and of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seemed to be trying to mess with Frist’s mind at this meeting of 1,800 Republican activists.

Early Friday morning at the Peabody Hotel, operatives apparently working for McCain were distributing stickers urging the delegates to write in President Bush’s name on the ballot for Saturday’s straw poll, which will be conducted by National Journal’s Hotline. Bush, of course, can’t run in 2008.

Later Friday evening, McCain gave what for him is a typical speech: witty, impassioned, off the cuff. At one point he took a handheld microphone and walked the stage, repeatedly urging the crowd to support the president by casting a vote for Bush in the straw poll.

"We should all just keep our ambitions a distant second to standing with the president of the United States, our commander in chief."

“With our country at war, he’s our president and the only one and he needs our support today,” McCain said of his former rival for the 2000 GOP nomination.

On Iran and its nuclear weapons ambitions, McCain urged the crowd to “stay behind the president on this.”

He made a point of denouncing those who had scuttled the Dubai Ports World deal in which that company was to acquire leases at several U.S. ports. Dubai Ports World is a state-owned firm based in the United Arab Emirates.

“I believe the UAE are good friends of ours,” McCain declared. To his surprise, many in the crowd broke into applause.

If successful, this Bush write-in effort will dilute the meaning of the straw poll and muddy what might have been an early victory for Frist.

"It may have a hint of mischief making," said Alex Vogel, an adviser to the Tennessee senator.

Frist's spokeswoman Amy Call said, "I keep hearing (from rival camps) that the straw poll is not a big deal. If it's not really a big deal, then why are they trying so hard?"

Using geography, Vogel sought to downplay the home-field advantage that Frist might enjoy in Saturday’s straw poll. “Sen. Frist is from Nashville, not Memphis,” Vogel explained. Nashville is 200 miles from Memphis, but “here in Memphis we are only five miles away from DeSoto County, Mississippi. And only 120 miles from Little Rock.” Mississippi is the home of McCain supporter, Sen. Trent Lott., who addresses the meeting on Saturday morning.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is one of the would-be contenders appearing at the Memphis event.

At the outset of his speech Friday afternoon, Romney referred to Tennessean Davey Crockett and launched into a humorous version of the 1950’s jingle (“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee…”) about the King of the Wild Frontier.

But Romney ended the song with a surprise twist, “Doctor, Doctor Bill Frist, king of the wild frontier.”

Romney, as it turns out, has a pleasant baritone singing voice and more importantly is willing to use humor to gently mock his rival for the nomination.

Romney’s speech to the Republican faithful at Memphis got a good, but not overwhelming reception. His biggest applause line was a reference to the highest court in his state ruling that same-sex couples had a constitutional right under both the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution to marry.

“Every child in America has the right to a mother and a father!” he declared, prompting many in the crowd to stand up and cheer

Romney also got enthusiastic applause for insisting that immigrants learn English – “I say, if you’re going to be successful in America, you have to speak the language of America.”

While the presidential contenders shook hands and gave speeches, the GOP activists, mostly from the South and Midwest, pondered the current sorry state of their president in the polls and the party’s 2006 election prospects.

Among some of the delegates in Memphis there was a mood of world weariness, a frustration with the so-far disappointing results of Bush’s crusade to bring democracy and rule of law to the Middle East.

Elizabeth Kalabus, a nurse and pre-law student from Cleveland Tenn., who has nine grandchildren, was the co-leader of the 2004 Bush campaign in Bradley County, Tenn.

“We’re at a crossroads right now,” said Kalabus. “With Iran, how much of an international role are we going to take? Are we going to be the U.N. and lead the world in this or are they going to do what they’re supposed to be doing and bring about world peace?”
Asked for her assessment of the current state of affairs in Iraq, she said with a note of resignation in her voice, “We’re there – and I don’t like what’s happening. I do think we need to help them stand on their own two feet, but what worries me more now is the ripples going on with Iraq, with Iran, with Israel, and the entire area. After 5,000 years of distrust I don’t think we’re going to see anything different too soon and I don’t know that we’re going to make a great big difference.”

In retrospect, was it a mistake for the United States to get so deeply involved in Iraq? “Probably,” she replied. “But we had certain criteria and data we based that on. It wasn’t a Republican or Democrat thing, it was an American thing…. We took action and we did what we thought was right. There is no going back on that. The point is: what are we going to do now that we’re at this point?”

And what message does she want to hear from her party’s 2008 nominee? “America First. We taking such a global stand now…. It’s time to say, ‘what’s right for us first.’”

Asked for some of her favorites among the contenders, Martha Branson, chairwoman of the Jones County Republican Party in Macon, Ga. said, “We definitely like Mr. McCain.”

Is he conservative enough for her? “Well, that’s what I’m watching for.”

When she hears the words “commander-in-chief” do any of the GOP contenders come to mind? “Probably Mr. McCain, because he is a formidable veteran.”

On the now-aborted Dubai pots world deal, involving the transfer of port facilities leases from a British firm to a state-owned firm based in the United Arab Emirates, Branson said, “My jury is still out. When I initially heard about that, I could not believe it and I still have difficulty grasping that…. We need to be careful with who our friends are.”

But she doesn’t blame Bush for allowing his administration to initially OK the proposed lease transfers.

“It’s my understanding that he didn’t know about it and I think some heads should roll because he has people around him who should have made him totally aware before any such thing happened,” Branson said.

Debbie Love, a full-time volunteer with the Republican Party in Knoxville, Tenn., saw a different lesson on the ports furor.

Are the grassroots activists demoralized due to the political snafu of the ports deal? “Surprisingly not,” Love said. “We hear what we hear from the media, but that’s not what we’re seeing from the grassroots people in eastern Tennessee. I’ve had more feedback that’s been negative about Republicans breaking ranks on this Dubai port thing than we’re having negative feedback about the port thing itself.”

She said GOP grassroots people knew something wasn’t right about the media portrayal of the port controversy “and how politicians were grabbing it and using it.”

Love said the GOP loyalists knew in their hearts that Bush had not suddenly gone soft on national defense.

She added, “You don’t have someone like Bush who has been strong on national security the whole way all of sudden saying (to Dubai), ‘OK, here’s all our security. You’re my friend; you can now invade my borders.’”

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