WASHINGTON (CNN) - Looking back, last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll provided a pretty good preview of the Republican race so far. The contest is a reliably headline-grabbing test of the conservative base’s preferred candidates -– and with hundreds of activists gathered in Washington for the final CPAC vote before the primary season, Mitt Romney’s team poured thousands of dollars into the event. Scores of Romney volunteers sporting identical campaign T-shirts, bused in at the campaign’s expense, stumped hard in the halls of the Omni Shoreham.
In the end, his campaign bankrolled one of the most ambitious and well-funded grassroots efforts in CPAC straw poll history -– only to come away with just 21 percent of the vote, and a costly, underwhelming victory over runner-up Rudy Giuliani, who essentially spent nothing at all. (When both first- and second-place votes were weighed, Romney did even worse - coming in third behind both Giuliani and Newt Gingrich.)
Mike Huckabee was a sentimental hit at the 2007 conference, drawing an enthusiastic reception from the conservative crowd –- then, as now, battling the idea that his relatively low-profile, cash-poor campaign was doomed from the start. ("My dear friends,” he said, “may I say to you that if celebrity and money are the criteria to be President of the United States, then Paris Hilton might be our next president.")
Finally, John McCain, who tended to avoid the annual gathering, was in the midst of a campaign to thaw his frosty relationship with many of the conservative power brokers in attendance. Last year, he weighed a last-minute CPAC appearance - before a rumored logistical showdown with organizers short-circuited the plan.
Today –- fresh off his strong Super Tuesday showing - McCain’s speaking on the first day of this year’s CPAC, just a few hours after Romney. Huckabee and Ron Paul will also address the conference - along with the man they’re trying to replace, President Bush.
Hillary Clinton’s team might have raised eyebrows yesterday as they tried to tag Barack Obama as the new “establishment candidate” – but as news of her campaign’s shrinking war chest continues to mount, it may be growing just a bit easier to imagine her in the role of Democratic underdog. Today, she stumps in newly-competitive Virginia, where Obama has dispatched his South Carolina turnout squad in advance of next Tuesday’s vote. Meanwhile, Obama continues to mine for delegates in red state territory with a stop in Nebraska, where Democrats weigh in this weekend.
– CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand