I’ve been getting some mail claiming that the room at CPAC was packed with McCain supporters, while opponents of McCain were kept out of the main room. My sense is that these reports are exaggerated. I wanted to make sure to see McCain, so I arrived a little over an hour early. By that time there were very few open seats remaining, and my sense is that this was not from seat-packing but simply because so many people wanted to arrive early for the talk (not to mention to see the pre-talk panels).
I was lucky enough to find an open seat in the center section, the only open center-section seat I could see after several trips up and down the right-hand aisle. A couple of socially conservative young students were on one side. They seem to have been Romney supporters, and told me how shocked and confused they were earlier when Romney withdrew. On the other side of me was an older professional who has been an activist against illegal immigration for years.
The immigration opponent to my right quietly groused about McCain through the beginning of his speech, and predicted that McCain wouldn’t even address immigration. After McCain made his “widespread consensus” pledge, the grousing stopped, although there was puzzlement about just what it might mean. Even before the speech, the students on my left seemed happy to support McCain. Maybe twenty minutes before McCain spoke, his supporters passed through the aisles and handed out signs, which the students to my left happily took. They were clearly not McCain plants, just people who were happy to show support for the evident nominee. They were also clearly energized by McCain’s speech.
Now it’s true that when McCain’s supporters passed through the aisles handing out signs to whomever wanted them, some of them also tried to take whatever few seats were still open. One small clutch of McCain supporters even tried to usurp a temporarily empty seat nearby that the students were saving for someone who had briefly gotten up. But we didn’t let them have the saved seat. Anyway, by that time, there just weren’t enough open seats for any real packing to take place.
Now maybe the room was much more “packed” with McCain people than I realized, even before I came in and sat down. But that wouldn’t have been easy to pull off. An hour or so before the talk, anyone who wanted to come in and sit down could–whether pro- or anti-McCain. I just don’t see how anyone who wanted to boo McCain could have been kept out at that point. Nobody questioned me about who I supported when I came in, or tried to stop me from sitting down. There was a set of VIP rows at the very front of the room, but this was relatively small and would not have seriously effected the crowd’s response, even if “packed.”
Now it’s certainly true that a number of the senators and congressmen participating in the panels that preceded the big speech made the case that it would be a mistake to boo McCain. One speaker harked back to the rude treatment Ronald Reagan had received at the 1976 convention and said “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This and a number of other eloquent arguments against booing were made. And they seemed to have a real impact on the crowd.
In short, McCain supporters passed out signs to anyone who wanted them and took what very few open seats were available by a few minutes before the talk, but I saw nothing that looked like a concerted, much less effective, packing of the CPAC audience on behalf of John McCain. Maybe something very different was happening in another part of the room, but that’s what I saw.