The Cult of Ron is alive. Walking into his speech today meant walking past a line of more than 200 people, waiting to register for one day to see the man speak and vote in the straw poll. (There were Romney fans too, and he speaks shortly after Paul.) As Paul begin, they were still in line, but the Omni Shoreham ballroom was as packed as it had been for anyone for a crisp 20 minute lecture on how America had lost its way.
I've seen Paul give a number of speeches to religious audiences. In them, he typically pushes hard on his experience as a doctor who witnessed the results of abortions. In recent speeches to these audiences, he has taken another tack, and placed his libertarianism in the stream of Judeo-Christian history. This is mostly done by quoting scripture. "Why is it that we don't fight for the right to keep the fruits of our labor?" he asked, in one of a few lines that got most of the audience up and cheering. "We are living with debt, and debt is not a Biblical principle." In this context, you can see why this was an applause line: "I'd say we've gone downhill for the last 100 years." To a libertarian, that means decline since the dawn of the progressives; to social conservatives it means still more.
Around 10 percent of Paul's crowd left after the speech. They missed Bill Bennett's turn as the first speaker to condemn Dr. Robert Jeffress, the pastor who introduced Rick Perry yesterday with some musings about his "genuine Christian[ity]."
"I'm thinking of the words of Mr. Jeffress, Pastor Jeffress," said Bennett. (In itself, saying "mister" instead of "doctor" was a diss.) "Do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry."
There was only mild applause; being fair, I'd note that lots of the attendees I talked to yesterday afternoon were unaware of the controversy, and unaware of the media blitz Jeffress went on all day. But when I asked if they agreed that Mormonism is a cult, many said "yes." Jeffress is not wrong -- many evangelical Christians consider Mormonism a cult. But Bennett sounded angry that Jeffress had made this the story of the conference.
"You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry, and Santorum, and Cain, and Bachmann," sad Bennett. "You did Rick Perry no good, sir."