CONSERVATIVE eyes are smiling.
At first it might seem strange that the right wing of the Republican Party should have anything to be happy about. After all, a Republican president lost the last election, giving the Democrats control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in a dozen years.
But the 1,100 activists - a record number - who gathered here this weekend for the 20th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) could not be happier if the Gipper himself, Ronald Reagan, were allowed to run for a third term as president.
The cause of their satisfaction? President Clinton's economic package. Conservatives of all shades and stripes came together in expressing resounding and unequivocal rejection of what they call "tax and spend" policies.
"Conservatives seemed to be flying in all directions after the demise of communism. I've just discovered what will hold the Republican Party together," William Bennett, former education secretary and "drug czar," said Feb 19. "I've seen the party coalesce in the last 24 or 48 hours in opposition to the Clinton proposals."
Conservatives, it seems, are never quite as happy as when they can denounce the policies of "big government." By comparison, governing was a drag. All those compromises, all those unsatisfactory policies. Many viewed President Bush as a Republican president, but never a red-blooded conservative, never one of them.
"It was tough to sell conservative philosophy under Bush," says Don Derham, national secretary of Young Americans for Freedom, a group founded by journalist William Buckley Jr. in the 1950s. "Now we're in the enviable position of being out of power, not having to run government programs but being able to criticize them."
And how they criticize.
The three-day gathering of CPAC, which ended Feb. 20, was one long string of potshots at the incumbent administration.
From David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union: "The president's speech was a terrible mishmash of outdated liberal principles.... This is a president who believes all good flows from government."
From Patrick Buchanan, columnist and erstwhile presidential candidate: "Clinton's program is the son of [former budget director] Dick Darman, the Dr. Kevorkian of the Bush administration."
From Dick Cheney, former secretary of defense: "Whatever happened to the new Democrat? I look at the package and it looks to me that it's the same kind of package that Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis would have written."
Not even Hillary Rodham Clinton - especially not Hillary - could escape the flak. Virtually every speaker followed the lead of Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, who referred at one point in his speech to "the president and Bill Clinton." The line drew thunderous applause.
While most participants in CPAC seemed to enjoy reveling in their opposition, they also conducted some important business: helping to chart the Republican Party's future course.
Virtually every major conservative figure who has been mentioned as a presidential candidate in 1996 - from former Vice President Dan Quayle to televangelist Pat Robertson - spoke there.
Mr. Buchanan received the gathering's most boisterous reception. Some 60 supporters stood in the back of the ballroom as the columnist spoke and periodically punctuated his remarks with cries of "Pat! Pat!" These were the hard-core faithful who consider other conservative leaders to be sellouts.
"Kemp has become a big government, big spending establishment bureaucrat," charged John Hemenway, a Washington engineer who counts himself a member of the "Buchanan Brigades." "Pat has still held to a strong foundation of conservative principles. I think he can win in '96."
But the majority of delegates disagreed. A straw poll taken of CPAC participants showed that Jack Kemp is their overwhelming choice for president in 1996. The former Cabinet member won 53.8 percent of the vote - miles ahead of Buchanan, who was in second place with 10.2 percent. Mr. Quayle finished third with 6 percent.
"It doesn't mean much except that Kemp is the Monday morning favorite for the nomination," Mr. Keene, the conference organizer, said. "I expected him to have that kind of lead. The question is if he can maintain it."
Mr. Kemp closed out the convention Feb. 20 with a 30-minute address that seemed to be the opposite of Buchanan's. Where Buchanan had been combative, Kemp was mellow. Where Buchanan was vitriolic, Kemp was magnanimous. Where Buchanan seemed determined to settle old scores (at one point, he rapped Keene for not supporting him in 1992), Kemp wanted to look to the future.
The result was a wide-ranging speech that began with a call for extending freedom and liberty around the world, moved on to a defense of supply-side economic principles, and ended with a plea for Republican Party unity.
"We should be like Abraham and Lot," Kemp told the assembled faithful in his raspy voice. "We've got to stop carping at each other and work together as kindred spirits. Let there be no enmity between tribesmen."
For one weekend at least, Kemp's dream was almost a reality. Many fundamental differences within conservative ranks - evangelicals vs. libertarians, interventionists vs. isolationists, supply-siders vs. deficit hawks - were briefly forgotten as the conservative activists united in Clinton-bashing.
But, predicts Daniel Casse, a staff member in the Bush White House, "the battle of ideas" will reemerge as the warm afterglow of the convention wears off.