At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, a man in a dolphin suit stood outside the Omni Shoreham Hotel mocking Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping on abortion, the Reagan presidency, and other issues dear to conservative hearts. Attendees loved him. This year, Flipper stood by himself in a hallway, his dorsal fin drooping, his plush head hanging—a year’s worth of wear and tear. With John McCain on the verge of winning the Republican nomination, few of the conservatives at CPAC wanted to joke about Romney, in whom they had of late placed their hopes. And within a few hours of the start of the conference, both Romney and Flipper would need to find new lines of work.

The former Massachusetts governor was introduced by Laura Ingraham, who, clueless of the drama to come, waxed on about Romney as the “conservative’s conservative” while enthusiastic supporters waved foam “Mitts.” With trademark efficiency, he delivered a speech that served red meat with the regularity and forced sincerity of a Denny’s waitress. On welfare and regulation, Romney said, “Dependency is culture killing.” On family, he declared that the development of a child is “enhanced” by having a mother and father. “I wonder how it is that unelected judges, like some in my state of Massachusetts, are so unaware of this reality,” he mused.

He compared his run against McCain to Reagan’s campaign against the moderate Ford, but then declared that one issue trumped everything, even his own presidential ambitions: “There is an important difference from 1976. Today we are a nation at war.” He explained that by fighting on to the convention, he would “forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I’d make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win. … I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.” As disappointed fans filed out, organizers hauled out the campaign debris. Exit Romney faithful, enter McCainiacs. The transition took mere minutes.

Well aware that CPAC wasn’t a natural constituency, McCain’s campaign had loaded a double-barreled introduction: former Virginia senator George Allen, who but for three unfortunate syllables might have been in McCain’s place, and Tom Coburn, arguably the Senate’s most conservative member.

His credentials polished, McCain entered to orchestrated applause—the string of speakers preceding him had urged the crowd to mind its manners—and struck as conciliatory a tone as an old maverick can muster. “Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years,” he said. “I understand that. … And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative.”

The reaction was mixed. The author of last year’s wildly unpopular “comprehensive immigration reform” was roundly booed when he broached the subject of America’s borders. But he knew how to win the audience back: “Whomever the Democrats nominate, they would govern this country in a way that will, in my opinion, take this country backward to the days when government felt empowered to take from us our freedom to decide for ourselves the course and quality of our lives.” (Within the same paragraph, McCain inadvertently demonstrated the contradictions between the old Republican palaver about freedom and the demands of the war on terror saying, “It is shameful and dangerous that Senate Democrats are blocking an extension of surveillance powers.” No line got louder applause.)

McCain may not have sealed the deal, but he got his foot in the door. Blogging for National Review, Stanley Kurtz wrote, “I thought McCain did an excellent job … he won over most of the crowd.”

While the establishment was upstairs coalescing around its unlikely champion, the full spectrum of the conservative grassroots was on display in the downstairs exhibition hall. Where else to buy an “I’d rather be water-boarded than vote for McCain” t-shirt? Other conservative couture featured a picture of a bricklayer constructing a wall: “If you build it, they won’t come.”(One wonders what the Hondurans who make these shirts think of the Americans who buy them.) A generation after the Berlin Wall fell, red-baiting is still in vogue: one activist sold t-shirts with the figure of Vladimir Lenin bestriding an American university; another offered bottles of Lenin-ade and ushankas with hammer and sickle insignia and Clinton or Obama’s name.

Wandering among the dealers, Max Blumenthal greeted me. Son of former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, Max writes for The Nation and produces video exposés of the Right. He looked over his shoulder at the young Republican women standing around and asked, “Shouldn’t they be dressed more modestly?” I laughed and said that the conservative movement doesn’t come from Amish country. Max offered his opinion of the way liberal women dress (not all that great) and pressed on about the short skirts and plunging necklines around us. By then, I wanted to get away. “I guess they are dressed for breeding,” I quipped—then immediately worried that he was videotaping me. That would never sound right. But Max had hit on something odd about CPAC.

Six feet from us hung a t-shirt that read “I only sleep with Republicans,” and two booths away Young Americans for Freedom featured an airbrushed poster of Ann Coulter in her best come-hither pose. The Young Britons’ Foundation didn’t have any Edmund Burke tracts, but they did have a poster of a sultry brunette, her lips parted slightly. The lascivious caption: “Life is better under a conservative.” Not to be outdone, banners at the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute’s booth encouraged each young woman walking by to become “A Luce Lady.” CPAC’s many parties would provide ample opportunity.

The first night, a Washington Times editor rented a room and spread the word that he had $1,500 worth of booze. The party was loud, and just a few moments after former congressman Bob Barr, leader of the House’s effort to impeach Bill Clinton, posed for a picture with his arms draped over two young women, the hotel shut down the festivities. The consensus opinion of the party: “Off the hook.”

The Maine College Republicans boasted on Facebook of their annual binge: “In just five years Mainefest has grown from a small hotel gathering to become one of Washington’s most highly anticipated social events of the year.” It’s not quite the Gridiron Dinner, but the parties seem to please the attendees. Washington’s free-market think tanks and lobbying outfits suffer from a lack of females, and college Republican groups contain a surfeit of attractive women looking for America’s future lawyers. Besides, the men in college Republican groups are unavailable and undesirable—their romantic attention entirely fixed on Ayn Rand.

Not everyone came for the parties. Outside the main ballroom, angry CPACers waved “Republicans Against McCain” protest signs. Another cluster held up a “McCain = Amnesty” banner. Libertarian activists claimed that registrations at their booth spiked as soon as Romney announced the suspension of his campaign.

Ron Paul, under whose standard most dissenters rallied, gave one of the sharpest speeches of his campaign. The only featured speaker to attack John McCain, Paul asked the audience to consider that the presumptive nominee had allied with Tom Daschle on tax policy, with Russ Feingold on campaign finance, with Al Gore on global warming, and with Ted Kennedy on immigration. He did not shy away from his differences with the movement on the war on terror: “Osama bin Laden loves our foreign policy.” Donald Devine, second vice chairman of The American Conservative Union, moved slowly to the back of the room, asking if the people there supported Paul. With a sigh, he admitted that he, too, would probably vote for him. It was a stunning admission from one of CPAC’s founders.

But the organizers know better than to let their conference devolve into dissent. Newt Gingrich was called in as the closer. His speech contained his familiar chorus of absurd statistics: “85 percent of American people believe we have an obligation to protect America and her allies, 75 percent believe we have obligation to defeat our enemies.” Apparently Democrats believe that America’s enemies should pillage Kansas City next week.

At one moment Gingrich seemed to echo the dissident voices heard in break-away sessions: it is essential for “the conservative movement … to declare itself independent from the Republican Party.” But that doesn’t mean starting a new party or even sitting out an election. Gingrich continued, “Any reasonable conservative will—in the end—find they have an absolute requirement to support the Republican nominee for president this fall.” Apparently political independence from Republicans still implies an absolute requirement to vote for them.

Gingrich was acting according to the logic of CPAC. Founded to pull the country and the Republican Party to the right, the conference is now so well established and so reliant on the appearance of big-name politicians for its success (measured in number of attendees and media buzz) that it has become the place where conservatives reconcile themselves to voting Republican no matter what. Tempted though they may be to punish the GOP for its transgressions, each year Raymond Aron’s dictum prevails: “In politics, the choice is not between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.” Of course this gives incredible license to “the preferable” to act detestably. If a movement believes that its opponents are the communist caricatures depicted on CPAC t-shirts, it can convince itself to throw in with McCain. By the end of Gingrich’s speech, morale had been lifted and attendees had their bags stuffed with all the trinkets they could carry.

The bullying bumper stickers, the man in the dolphin outfit, and the bestsellers by radio personalities are all the result of conservatives turning toward movement politics. It is tempting to sniff at the CPAC crowd—many of whom claim to be conservatives but cannot tell the difference between Russell Kirk and Captain Kirk. But that would be wrong.

Moving from ideas to policy advocacy and finally to governance requires building an electoral coalition that will, by its very nature, simplify subtle reflections into campaign slogans. When William F. Buckley tied himself, and by extension National Review, to the cause of Joe McCarthy, the conservative intellectual movement was married to a populist base. In his 1992 Republican convention speech, Pat Buchanan spoke of a great class of voters: “They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they came from the same schoolyards and playgrounds and towns as we did. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart.” Many of them are now at CPAC—and that’s part of the problem.

The conference flattens the political passions of these conservatives, channeling their energy into national politics and away from local concerns. Thus the range of activism narrows to immigration, foreign policy, and the solipsistic goal of sustaining the conservative movement itself. This is good for keeping Beltway institutions well funded but bad for the actual work of conservatism.

As the Omni Shoreham’s staff disassembled the exhibit hall, the young Republicans repaired to Capitol Hill for the last party of the weekend, Reaganpalooza, where organizers urged everyone to “Drink one for the Gipper.” A handful of anti-McCainiacs ordered stiff shots and argued over whether they could vote Republican in the fall. “It’s an anti-Obama vote, that’s all,” one offered. “But on immigration, McCain is against us. And on the war he’s against public opinion,” said another. But soon enough they swallowed their doubts and began dancing to the music, determined to celebrate a president who left office before some of them were born. The band never stopped playing on the Titanic either.