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CPAC puzzle: how to grow a younger, more diverse GOP (+video)

White, middle-aged activists at the annual CPAC rally in Washington agree that the Republican Party needs to turn toward diversity, but differ over the ways and means to do it.

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He continued by quoting Reagan, who spoke at the first CPAC 40 years ago. “If there are those who cannot subscribe to the principles, let them go their own way.”

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A panel discussion late Thursday evaluated the so-called Buckley Rule – a concept laid down by former National Review legend William Buckley that holds that conservatives should support the most conservative candidate who is likely to get elected. The panel reached a similar but less restrictive conclusion.

In recent Senate races over the past several elections, far-right candidates with deep-pocketed donors locked horns with candidates backed by the more staid party establishment and their own Daddy Warbuckses. Those battles led to chasms of mistrust within the Republican Party and a host of embarrassing losses that many strategists conclude cost Republicans either narrow control or a much larger minority in the US Senate.

Steven Law, the head of Crossroads GPS, the most powerful Republican "super PAC," argued that the choice between a “conservative” candidate and an “electable” one is often a false dichotomy.

Instead, the party should avoid trying to boost weak candidates who tilt toward either side of the ledger with outside money.

“Sometimes, when you support somebody you become a life-support system,” Mr. Law said. “If a candidate can’t fundamentally do it on their own, we ought not to be backing them.”

With others nodding in assent, former California GOP chairman Ron Nehring argued that the way to avoid the problematic weighing of ideological purity versus electability was a practical concern: The party is too weak, Mr. Nehring said, and needs to train better candidates.

“Just because you are conservative does not make you a good candidate. These two wheels spin independently of one another,” Nehring said, laying out a three-fold path to good candidates: philosophy, personal narrative, and political competency.

“We need good solid candidates who are good on the playing field,” he continued. “We can’t take that nomination back if they fumble the ball in October.”

John Gizzi, a columnist at conservative Human Events magazine, concluded that the issue isn’t so much about who wins a knock-down, drag-out primary fight but how the party repairs itself in the aftermath.

“The argument is not so much about being for the party or against conservatives, but that those who were so upset about not nominating a particular candidate that they didn’t rally around their opponent,” Mr. Gizzi said.

This spirit of transition, of trying to find the sweet spot between tradition and change, was evident nearly everywhere at CPAC. An afternoon panel featured “millennial” young conservatives, and Cardenas highlighted the fact that “most” of the weekend’s emcees were under 35 while most of the panels featured much-older guests.  

The conference’s theme? “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives.” (Last year's was “We Still Hold These Truths.”)

The organizers thought through the new-kids-on-the-block theme. The Top 40 pop music that filled interludes between speakers on the main stage (Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida bounded on stage to the tween anthem “What Makes You Beautiful,” by One Direction) was a far cry from, say, the golden oldies mixes played at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last September.

But as with any generational handover, the transitions weren’t always smooth.

As four white men filed onto the main stage Thursday to discuss America’s military engagements, the hit song “Some Nights” by Fun piped through the speakers. But as the nervous, under 35-emcee haltingly urged the panelists to take their seats, the song lingered a bit longer than anticipated, hitting its chorus: “I'm still not sure what I stand for. What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights, I don't know anymore."

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