Not only was the hall suddenly overflowing, these were a different breed. Something subtly amiss grew increasingly creepy by the minute. Unthreatening enough not to cause panic but perceptibly subversive and sinister enough to trigger alarms. Then it became clear. It was an invasion. By an entirely alien invasive species.
The polyester-blend nation of Stepford Republicans had seized control of the conservative conference known as CPAC.
It was obvious the crowd for Jeb Bush had been imported.
It wasn't just the overflowing hall.
Or the suspicious number of Bush stickers on lapels that suddenly appeared.
It was the lapels.
Conservative attendees had heard the rumor swirling through the convention that there would be a protest walkout when the former Florida governor spoke that last Friday of February. What they did not find out until later was that Bush supporters, staffers and volunteers had been shipped in by the busloads from the lobbyist lair of K Street, in nearby Washington.
In fact, a leaked email would reveal they had been instructed to arrive at 7:30 a.m. for the 1:40 p.m. appearance and to save seats for fellow travelers.
The walkers lined the halls and pressed against the walls of what was by far the biggest crowd at the convention that week. They were everywhere.
Bushies rarely spoke, even more rarely smiled, frowned or let any expression crease their faces. Glued to phones, texting incessantly. Uniformly neutral in demeanor and personality, which is to say vacuous. Vacant. Void. Null set. No lights on and nobody home.
Worse yet ... moderates.
It was a sight to behold. A teeming yet ideologically barren landscape of post-apocalyptical politics.
Busloads of Bush's walking dead vying for the soul of the GOP at CPAC.
All in lockstep from head to toe, collar to cuff.
By contrast, the conservatives were a rainbow of such rainforesty diversity and nonconformity as to look positively Haight-Ashburian circa 1967 in comparison.
Bushies came in two basic models: wiry weasel junior executive and doughy frat pledge. There were few women.
Weasels wore JCPenney junior executive wannabe power-ranger suits with pale shirts and what their dads told them were power ties. The doughboys wore the same outfit purchased from Ed's Big and Tall.
They all bore the same purposefully inoffensive-as-possible Supercuts hairstyle cropped just above the ears, two inches above the collar. The length in front was about one-month-out-of-military-prep-school growth, and somehow managed to be both highly and unimaginatively coiffed. Their uniformity, conformity and lack of individuality was an ideal to which all could aspire. Together. All at once.
Perhaps, like Mormon door-to-door missionaries, they would appear less-threatening if they all looked alike.
After all, if that many people agreed on what is a good look, maybe their ideas were good, too. And maybe those easily spooked, hayseed conservatives wouldn't find the moderates' new-fangled and sophisticated notions so strange and threatening, after all. Just speak to them softly, slowly and soothingly, like a skittish pony.
It was painfully clear that by donning nothing threatening or remotely provocative they hoped to appeal to the most people. The lowest common denominator was their lodestar. They embodied boring because they opted for the safest style of all: taking no chances on any individuality or individual thought, or anything that might offend anyone. Except, of course, conservatives. Who were they going to vote for, Hillary?
As Bush hour approached, the inner core of the hall was still a solid bait ball of conservatives, but the landsharks began circling the perimeter. The aisles ringing the hall began to bling with shiny red Bush stickers ominously forming phalanxes in a slow-motion blitzkrieg.
A reporter, knowing full well Bush was to speak next, nonetheless wanted to see what reaction he would get by asking a junior mad man a modestly intrusive question.
"Is Bush next?"
Slowly his head turned, as if his consciousness had been reluctantly dragged, kicking and screaming, back to earth by a mere mortal, until he hissed and spat out the solitary word. "Yes." And then he glared with eyes of burning coal; just, one assumes, to make a point.
Not all Bushies were viperous. Some seemed sweet but utterly lost. The Kool-Aid had not quite taken full effect. But even their sincerity was well-rehearsed. Not quite the unvarnished hospitality and uninhibited friendliness of auntie June from the PTA and local tea-party chapter.
As Phil Robertson took his sweet time preaching to the choir, a Bushie leaned over and asked, who is that?
If you have to ask, this ain't your crowd.
Another Bushie ridiculed Robertson's camouflage headband, growing impatient that a plebeian patrician of a mere Duck Dynasty was holding up the shiny brand-new model of the Bush dynasty.
On and on wheezed this nouveau riche geezer who didn't even inherit his own fortune. Something about unalienable rights, God, morality, the Founding Fathers, the Federalist papers and some other stuff so boring and so last millennium it isn't even covered in Common Core curriculum, for St. Benneton's sake!
A few dozen people walked out. The majority of the conservatives stuck around to boo.
Bush wore an expensive replica of the cheap knock-offs that adorned his legion of minions. Sort of like if Mercedes made a Jetta.
The contrast of the Bushies with the conservatives was stark, in oh-so-many ways.
The Bushies were all the same. Mad Men of the new millennium.
The conservatives were all over the map.
Unafraid to rub elbows with the hoi polloi at the hotel bar the night before, Sarah Palin casually chatted with an adoring flock who politely surrounded her, getting as close as possible but having the common decency to give her room to breathe.
Casually comfortable and self-possessed in jeans and sweater, the former Alaska governor exuded a relaxed self-confidence and unforced friendliness, genuinely interested in engaging regular folk about everything from raising kids to stopping the ayatollahs. After Palin animatedly and passionately bantered about the faux-feminism of the left and its desire to put every Julia on the dole from cradle to grave, she was polite and classy enough not to point out her admirer's fly had been fully unzipped the whole time.
An establishment matron sniped that the governor's American flag sweater was "tacky," but Palin is no fashion slacker. Her taste for haute couture is well-documented, refined, extensive and expensive, running the gamut of Valentino, Elie Tahari, Escada, Akris Punto and St. John.
Yeah, the sweater may have been a little loud, but Palin gave the breezy impression it was in the Christmas sweater spirit. A woman secure enough to literally wear her heart on her sleeve.
Also a woman who didn't care what people thought about how she looked, not compared to how passionately she cared about what people thought about her ideas. What was on the inside counted most, not the outside. What could be more Gloria Steinem?
Texan informality and casual but confident nonchalance was on display when Sen. Ted Cruz chatted with a small group of conservative reporters before his address to CPAC.
The country lawyer. Who went to Harvard law. His wife probably dresses him because Cruz gives the impression it isn't the top thing on his mind. Not that he doesn't care about appearance, it just isn't a priority. A taste in attire that is not expensive but understated and comfortable in its own skin. Usually a fairly standard Capitol Hill uniform, dark suit, no stripes, white or pale blue shirt, blue or red tie. Good enough.
A man who cares what people think about him and doesn't want to appear unkempt but who will never be told what to wear or bend to popular fads or fashion. A proud Texan nonetheless smart enough to put away his "argument boots" in favor of black tennis shoes before a filibuster. More sensible than stylish. Reagan without the dash of Hollywood.
Cruz greeted reporters with a no-nonsense demeanor but a welcoming and warm smile. Without a tie and with sleeves rolled up, he was ready to get to work scaling the ramparts of both the GOP establishment and the White House. The senator proved to be a man with a firm handshake who would look a feller square in the eye when told, "Give 'em hell."
Following the handshake, the gorgeous but unpretentious, gracious, and stylishly but modestly attired Washington Times reporter Alex Swoyer, wearing a simple black blouse and skirt, fitting but not revealing, immediately blurted out with a suddenly undisguised trace of a Southern accent, "That's what my dad told me to say to you!"
Cruz's buddy, Sen. Mike Lee, dresses like he is: not flashy but always impeccably direct, honest and whip-smart. Almost always a white shirt, blue or red tie and black coat. Sticks to the solid fundamentals and principles. As befitting the man rated most conservative lawmaker in last session's Congress by the Heritage Foundation. What you see is what you get. Not trying to be something he's not.
Sen. Rand Paul addressed CPAC as he often does when not on Capitol Hill, attired in jeans. Tie but no jacket. A would-be man of the people who dresses acceptably for his college crowd, the inordinately young throngs of Paul-heads who regularly skew the CPAC popularity poll with a trademark spunk that runneth over. With the Kentuckian, one is never quite sure which Paul will show up, the one dressed to appeal to the country or the Capitol.
Rep. Louie Gohmert crisply breezed through the CPAC corridors characteristically dressed with an understated stylishness, as though he had been on a soldier's budget after getting a slight pay bump to the JAG defense attorney he once was. Always a nice suit but no fancy label. Not off the rack but not flashy. Befitting a considerate man, soft-spoken in private, flame-throwing when outraged. A man who wants respect and to fit in as part of the club but who can't stand the conformity of the slaves to fashion and the powers that be in D.C. And who can only take so much kowtowing by colleagues.
Gov. Chris Christie appeared in a designer tent from Macy's covering the various different directions his form takes. Like his politics, all over the place.
Guerrilla video-journalist James O'Keefe, when not dressed as a pimp, usually dresses like a regular college kid in videos and daily life. At CPAC, he was dressed to the nines, stepping out of a Hugo Boss ad with a form-fitted fashion plate of a tailored three-piece suit with a vest so shiny it lit up the dark bar where he held court on the eve of his appearance on a CPAC panel. Aloof to strangers, quick to laugh and self-deprecating in private, he took jabs at his ego from his friends in stride. Funny and as razor-sharp as his suit.
Missed this year but a delight at CPAC 2014 was the wonderfully frumpy former Rep. Steve Stockman. Always in a suit but nothing ever quite fit, in the manner of a Texan who put down-home substance over style. Sweet, sincere, funny and endearingly friendly but a bulldog when it came to attacking fashionably liberal nonsense.
And the Bushies were certainly nothing like WND CEO Joseph Farah, a quick-to-laugh happy warrior usually wearing an unostentatious dark suit and white shirt, a smile on his face, a gun on his hip and a rapier wit to clear the bramble. And the bushes.
So, what was it about Bush that attracted anyone? Especially supporters under the delusion they were conservative.
There was an easy way to try to find out: wander around and ask anyone with a Bush sticker, "Why do you support Jeb?"
However, even their answers proved political and evidenced an expertise in dodging the question, exercises in such generic drivel devoid of specifics and so homogenous and unimaginative as to make vanilla seem like five-alarm chili.
Why do you support Bush?
"I'm from Florida.
"Any better reason?
"Uhh ... ask her." (He pointed to a woman answering the same question to another reporter.)
"You know, he's where the conservative party needs to go."
"Because he's electable."
"Why do you ask?"
You've got a Bush button.
Or, were you not aware you support Bush?
"Gosh, I'd really support anybody here today over the Democrats."
"He comes from a good background. It's a good tradition to follow. I think he's correct for the times."
"His record on education. He has a very strong record of reforming the public education system in Florida. He's also a strong supporter of Common Core and hasn't wavered on that, like some other candidates."
You believe Common Core is conservative?
"I believe it is a great step forward in the education system. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misperceptions out there."
Is Common Core your biggest issue? More important than Obamacare, ISIS or amnesty?
"For me, it's the education system. As far as a top issue, I would go with it."
That's your top issue, the biggest challenge facing the country today is education?
"I believe he's a strong leader. He left a surplus in Florida and we need to rein in spending."
"I think it's pretty obvious. In about 20 minutes (on the CPAC stage) he covered more ground than the rest of the field has so far."
Which topics was he best on?
"He hit the tough ones for the crowd here, Common Core, education, school choice in Florida."
To you, the most important issue facing the country today is education reform?
"It's certainly one of them. I think education reform is the key to unlocking kind of the opportunity that is a key part of his message. And, substance-wise, I think it just sets him apart from the rest of the crowd because I heard a lot of the speakers and not many of them are getting into the weeds and talking about what are they actually going to do. And that's something I really respect and think after eight years of Obama, who was an untested first-term senator, that's what we need. Somebody who plans what they're going to do and can execute."
"I just thought what really set Jeb apart was the fact that all the other speakers who've gotten up there seem to be just happy to throw out red meat to a favorable audience that can stand up and cheer, whereas Jeb stood up and answered the tough questions. He even had Sean Hannity, who many would think wouldn't like a Jeb Bush, stand there and question him, and I think he gave strong answers to every question he was asked. To me, he didn't hide from anything. He presented strong opinions and it seems like he's actually thought about these issues more than a lot of folks have."
"I think he can win. Anyone who looks into his record as governor of Florida will see a governor who was very conservative throughout his terms in Florida."
Conservative in what ways?
"The results he achieved there, just look at that, instead of listening to what the media wants to say, I think you'll see a very conservative man."
"The party is getting to a point where, obviously they're just Obama-tired, and conservatives are turning a corner, looking for a positive message, someone who will tell us what we're for, not just what were against. Candidates can't just get up there and spend 30 minutes talking about how they want to repeal Obamacare."
"I think he speaks well on a wide variety of issues. He has a lot of foreign policy depth. Not just Israel and Iran, but the Jordan conflict, the conflict in Turkey, a lot of different nuances in his speech that indicated to me that he's up to date on the issues and it will be an uphill battle for any other people in the field."
"I'm just wearing the sticker. I'm really undecided."
Who did you vote for in the straw poll?
"I'm a longtime supporter of the entire Bush family. I worked for his father and for his brother for several years. I helped set up trips. And I'm all in. I was impressed today and thought he did a really good job. I liked his answers on immigration. I thought it was really good in terms of an expansion of the way the law works now. I liked the part about bringing in people who help the economy."
You like his stance on immigration? Why?
"I'm an immigration lawyer."
Hey, at least he's honest. And he finally mentioned an actual issue other than Common Core. (Unless you count that one supporter's concern about the, err, conflicts, in Turkey and Jordan.) Were they all given a talking points memo? Or, rather, talking point. Because they all only seemed to have one issue. They were not just unafraid to talk about Common Core, it seemed to be virtually the only topic that mattered. Karl Rove must think it's a winner.
As for the tepid walkout on the speech by Bush, it may have showed conservatives what they are up against in stopping the GOP from nominating another moderate to run for president.
However, many conservatives opposed to Bush apparently stuck around to give him a listen, judging by the chorus of boos as moderator Sean Hannity rattled off a series of pro-amnesty quotes made by the former governor.
WND caught up with a few of the protesters and asked why they walked out on Bush.
"Immigration and Common Core," said one middle-aged woman with a Nordic accent. "Being a foreigner, it took me 16 years to get my citizenship, you know."
She said she was a bit offended by Bush's lax stance on immigration because, "I worked too hard to get my citizenship."
"Not a fan of Bush," said a young Hispanic man.
Why was that?
"We simply don't need another Bush or another Clinton in the White House."
And elderly man explained: "I am not a Jeb Bush fan. Too liberal for me. He shouldn't be here talking to a conservative group."
A young woman wearing a Cruz button who serves in a Christian youth mission told WND she simply found Bush too boring.
Bush had better hope that doesn't become the fashion in the heartland, beginning in Iowa.
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth