By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This is a golden era for political consultants - well, except for those Republicans still smarting from the November elections.
But Americans' political tastes tend to run in cycles, so there is always a mix of hope and wariness when consultants at both ends of the ideological spectrum gather, as they did in Washington last week, to toast the profession's top operatives.
Five months after Mitt Romney was thumped in the race for the White House - a loss that some placed at the feet of the small group of men and women who advised the Republican presidential challenger - the meeting of the American Association of Political Consultants threw together Democratic and Republican operatives who have dedicated their lives to undoing one another's work.
Even those whose clients lost in November feel they have plenty to celebrate in a business that boasts of increasing sophistication as well as profits.
In a video message played at the conference's Hall of Fame luncheon on Thursday, President Barack Obama paid wry respects to an industry that is populated by over-the-top personalities but seen by many Americans as fathering the bitter and costly ways of U.S. politics.
"There is nothing political consultants love more than celebrating their own genius," Obama said.
The 2012 election left many of the Republican campaign professionals feeling less like geniuses after their candidate was outmaneuvered by a sitting president they had believed to be vulnerable.
"Elections make you look smarter than what you are, and more stupid," said Ed Goeas, president of The Tarrance Group, a Republican strategy firm. "This was not an election for Republican consultants that made us look smarter."
After the loss in November, complaints among the Republican activists directed at the party's consultant class have been at full boil.
Appearing last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a gathering for influential right-wing activists, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin blasted party leaders such as Karl Rove, the former George W. Bush adviser, who she said have led the Republican Party astray.
"Now is the time to furlough the consultants, and tune out the pollsters, send the focus groups home and throw out the political scripts, because if we truly know what we believe, we don't need professionals to tell us," Palin said, calling for more staunchly conservative candidates.
(Never mind that Palin's own political action committee doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to consultants in 2012.)
CPAC also featured a panel with the indelicate title: "Should we shoot all the consultants now?"
Dale Emmons, a Democratic strategist from Kentucky and president of the consultants' association, said Republicans should hold their fire.
"To those who want to shoot all the consultants, I don't advise they do that," Emmons said. "I know the abilities of the people I compete against are strong."
Emmons said that perhaps no collection of advisers could have steered Romney around an incumbent president with a superior organization on the ground - one that was well positioned to take advantage of the nation's growing minority vote, which went heavily for Obama.
Few consultants or top aides who worked with the Romney campaign appeared at last week's gathering, which featured two days of panels - several dissecting the campaign's failings.
Former Romney press secretary Andrea Saul, a routine presence for the campaign on cable television, and Alex Lundry, a top data researcher for Romney, did participate.
For Obama advisers, the meeting was something of a victory lap. The president's pollster, Joel Benenson, began the conference with comments about the strength of the Democratic campaign's polling program and the weakness of various public surveys.
His colleagues David Axelrod and David Plouffe, top strategists for Obama's two winning presidential runs, were inducted into the association's Hall of Fame on Thursday.
"At first, I wondered whether this was a real organization or something that Axe and Plouffe made up last week," Obama said during his videotaped remarks.
A HAND ON THE 'WHEEL OF HISTORY'
A quartet of Republican strategists known for steering Republicans to victories in past elections - Arthur Finkelstein, Lance Tarrance, the late Bob Teeter and the late Lee Atwater - was honored.
Atwater, who died of cancer in 1991, is best known for orchestrating often-controversial campaigns that helped turn the South increasingly toward the Republican Party in the 1980s.
His aggressive campaign style inspired a generation of Republican consultants and led critics to accuse him of race-baiting, particularly for his work as George H.W. Bush's campaign manager in the 1988 presidential campaign.
On Friday night, the consultants handed out dozens of awards, celebrating the year's best in advertising, fundraising and mailing.
The consultants are sensitive to the criticism that they profit from the dysfunction of U.S. politics and were eager to stress their influence on candidates who they believe can help change the country for the better.
Plouffe, who managed Obama's 2008 campaign, said their lives amounted to putting a hand on the "wheel of history."
On his way out the door Thursday, Plouffe stopped to chat with a fellow consultant. Plouffe warned about the potential cost of the presidential election in 2016. Last year, each side of the presidential contest spent more than $1 billion.
"By '16, it's going to be $2 billion," Plouffe said.
The consultant sure hoped so.
"From your mouth," he said, "to God's ears."
(Reporting by Samuel P. Jacobs; Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech)