Conservatives showcase diversity and divisions at annual CPAC rally

The speaker list tells the tale: Star Sens.Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul are IN. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney also get to speak. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie didn't get an invite.

Stephan Savoia/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters at an election night rally in Boston, where he conceded the race to President Obama on Nov. 7. He is to deliver his first post-election speech at Washington’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

Republicans are holding their breath Thursday at the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the big annual Washington gathering that is expected to air divisions within the GOP four months after President Obama’s reelection.

The roster of speakers tells the story: From movement-conservative keynote speaker Ted Cruz, the outspoken new Republican senator from Texas, to libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, an establishment favorite, different strains of conservative thought will be on full display.

Other speakers will shift the focus to the recent, uncomfortable past. Mitt Romney, not a beloved figure in conservative circles, will make his first public address since losing to Mr. Obama last fall. And Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2008, will return to the spotlight after her recent split with Fox News.

Then, there are the non-invitees. Govs. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia have both run afoul of party orthodoxy in recent months and were snubbed by CPAC organizers. Governor Christie, the most popular Republican in the country, was seen as working a bit too closely with Obama in the wake of hurricane Sandy. Governor McDonnell recently backed tax increases as part of a state transportation bill. Also excluded was the gay Republican activist group GOProud.

“For a party seeking to rebrand and expand its tent, CPAC couldn’t come at a worse time,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

Even if the public isn’t paying close attention to politics right now, the media are – and they will focus on conflict, not consensus. “The only thing we agree on is free markets,” says Mr. O’Connell.

Christie’s lack of invitation may be a blessing in disguise for someone seen as a top prospect for the 2016 presidential race. As a popular Republican governor in a Democratic state, he gets to steer clear of any intra-party turmoil that erupts.

One of the highlights of the three-day conference will be the presidential straw poll. Senator Paul is expected to win, but, like his father before him, former Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas – a three-time presidential candidate – the younger Paul will be seen as more of a niche candidate in the 2016 race, if he runs.

About half of the 8,000 attendees at CPAC will be college students, a reflection of the conference’s aim to energize its next generation.  The Paul brand – both father and son – has special appeal among young conservatives.

Paul burst into the headlines recently with his nearly 13-hour, talking filibuster of Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, over the Obama’s administration’s use of drones in its battle against Al Qaeda – and the prospect that they might be used at home. The maneuver exposed a rift within the GOP over national security. Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina came down hard on Paul over the filibuster.

Immigration reform is another controversial issue that will be vetted at CPAC. Mr. Romney fared poorly among Latinos last November, in part because of his tough line toward undocumented immigrants. Leading party figures, such as Senator Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who will also address the conference, argue in favor of a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Observers will be watching to see what they say on the issue.

A closely watched panel on Thursday will be the one called “Respecting Families and the Rule of Law: A Lasting Immigration Policy.”

“I’m going to say some things that won’t go down so well,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, one of the panelists. His example: “If we don’t expand the party beyond the current people, we won’t elect another president in my lifetime or theirs.”

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