Before the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference opening event Thursday, a delegate began chatting with me about the conference. She explained that she was a “Mitt Romney girl.” She pointed to the photo of the former Massachusetts governor on the cover of the Liberty Today newspaper. Presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., also graced the May 2011 cover.

“Wouldn’t they make a good-looking ticket?” the delegate asked me in an eastern Pennsylvanian accent.

“Oh sure,” I agreed.

“Of course any of [the GOP nominees] would be better than the goofball we have in the White House now.” Then she leaned over and confessed: “I don’t like chocolate candy.”

Stunned, I failed to think of an appropriate, in-the-moment response. (Later on I wished I’d replied: “That’s funny. I had you pegged as a fan of Nutella.”) Then she remembered that Herman Cain was a GOP Presidential aspirant, and she added that Cain was “good.” Did I see his speech at the conference last year? It blew the roof off the place.

The afternoon session began no less awkwardly. Republican Party of Louisiana Chairman Roger Villere walked onstage in a white suit while “Fanfare for the Common Man” played. Villere asked everyone to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, but no flag was on the stage or on the video screens. I’d brought a small flag and was about to offer it, but Villere quickly suggested that attendees could pledge allegiance to the tiny flag pin on his suit lapel. Two elderly delegates in front of me grumbled in disgust – They don’t have a flag? – as the crowd rose to recite the pledge to the microscopic dot on Villere’s big white suit. Luckily, Villere’s hand on his breast didn’t cover the focus of everyone’s attention.

The central theme of the speakers during the afternoon session was that Republicans must reclaim the presidency in 2012 or else America is doomed. Villere implored the audience to coalesce around whoever wins the nomination. Conservative pundit and Louisiana native Erick Erickson said “this is the last election to get it right,” or else President Obama will do to America what Edwin Edwards did to Louisiana. (Then he declared that all GOP ideas are superior to all Democratic ideas.)

Texas Senate candidate and conservative darling du jour Ted Cruz stated that 2012 was the most important election ever because it will decide the fate of our free market economy. (Then he boasted about defending a 10 Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol, though he didn’t specify which version of the 10 Commandments he protected.)  Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson predicted that “there will be a bond-market meltdown” if the next president doesn’t balance the federal budget in 2013, (which, if elected, he will do by cutting Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and defense).

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was a notable exception. Clearly more talented and experienced than the other speakers that afternoon, Huckabee didn’t try to motivate attendees with dire scenarios about the republic’s imminent demise at the hands of Obama. Instead, he gave Republicans advice in a natural, folksy manner. He included a fair share of talking points and applause lines, but there were also moving stories and anecdotes. He began with an extended account how “his finest moment as governor” was taking in New Orleanians after Katrina and the Federal Flood. It wasn’t just lip service, either. You could tell Huckabee was moved because he described the episode at much greater length than I would’ve anticipated. He received no applause for the story at the conference, but I’ll salute him for his efforts.

The other speakers might’ve agreed with Huck’s point that “just because our government fails doesn’t mean that our country fails,” but they certainly didn’t sound like it, as they continually raised the stakes about the all-or-nothing 2012 elections.

Huckabee was miffed that Southern candidates are dismissed as “regional” candidates, just as “social” conservatives are seen by some as a sort of niche category among Republican conservatives.  He made the welcome point that the rest of the country can learn from the South, and that social activists aren’t necessarily less conservative in fiscal or defense matters than other Republicans.

Most impressively, Huckabee had some tough love for his party, which he illustrated in two stories. The first was about a mother he saw who couldn’t afford to buy more than  $5 worth of gas at a time. The GOP must learn to talk to people like her, he said. Then he told of how a veteran who lost a leg fighting overseas was flying on the same plane as Huckabee, going to a hospital for treatment. Republicans must ensure their party “does what it takes” to give veterans whatever they need, Huckabee said. One of the biggest standing ovations of the afternoon followed.

It wasn’t all Hucktastic, though. Like many of the other speakers, Huckabee made his share of howlingly inaccurate statements, such as, “Government is the only sector of the economy that’s growing” under Obama. Actually, the exact opposite is much more true.

Presidential aspirant Gary Johnson spoke later that afternoon, and he requested that he be judged by his actions rather than his words. That was a good idea, too, since Johnson’s plain, soft-spoken delivery makes Gov. Tim Pawlenty seem like Carrot Top.

Johnson has the luxury of making extreme proposals with no threat of scrutiny because he’s not yet viewed as an electable candidate. His policies of building coal plants to increase employment and cutting Medicare to balance the budget won’t ruffle anyone’s feathers until Johnson rises in the polls.

There were some illuminating moments during Johnson’s speech, though. Instead of an encomium to President Reagan (on his 100th birthday), no one seemed to mind when Johnson criticized the Gipper’s amnesty policy toward illegal aliens. Then Johnson received big applause after saying we should “get out of Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow,” and got even more when he said he is “opposed to foreign aid”  — period. Oddly, he concluded his speech by making a strong case for marijuana legalization, and was rewarded with a surprisingly supportive reaction from the crowd. Is this the right conference, I wondered.

After sitting through the afternoon session, I took my daughters to the circus. As someone mentioned on Twitter yesterday, I can confirm that the town is full of “clowns, contortionists and elephant dung.”

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...