Politically speaking, the most obvious winner at last weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference was home-state Senator Bill Frist, who offset the media's lukewarm appraisal of his speaking style to win the event's straw-vote presidential-preference poll with a more than two-to-one edge over his nearest competitor, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Whatever comes next for Frist, he would seem to be in the presidential race to stay.
And Democrats, too, may have gained something. Various Republicans, both privately and from the dais, said that poll warnings of voter disenchantment with the GOP had to be taken seriously. But Democrats will also have to answer to the kind of challenge that was thrown down from the podium by Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, himself a former Democrat. "The Great Society folks have become the Great Silence folks," Coleman told his audience. "They are violating one of the [main] rules of politics: You can't beat something with nothing." Instead of proposing concrete alternatives to Republican rule, said Coleman, Democrats have resorted to "wishing the economy was worse and the war [in Iraq] was failing."
There is enough truth in that assessment to merit serious attention from the regrouping out-of-power party.
Overall, there was food for thought aplenty put on the table by the Republican dignitaries in Memphis -- who included John McCain and virtually every other GOP presidential hopeful, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and a host of other prominent governors, senators, and congressmen.
We even learned something new: George W. Bush's old "Axis of Evil" lineup, which was made up of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, may be on the way to being displaced as a national specter by the daunting new diumvirate of China and India. Those two countries were mentioned by speaker after speaker as future economic adversaries of the most threatening kind.
John Ryder, the longtime member of the Republican National Committee who was chief organizer for the conference, said the weekend "turned out to be about 125 percent" of what he expected. Whatever Ryder's expectations, and they were no doubt high, the end result was certainly a boost for the GOP cadres and party notables who came.
And from Memphis' own point of view, economically, image-wise, and otherwise, the bottom line of last weekend was expressed in this aside from one of the city's visitors, respected national columnist Charlie Cook: "When you can get three, four, five, six [presidential] candidates in one town over three days in front of an audience of grass-roots activists -- that's great. It's awesome."