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Major conservative conference comes at crucial time for GOP

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands of conservative leaders and activists gather at annual conference
  • CPAC is "part rally, part political revival and part family reunion,' GOP strategist says
  • Conference will be the first cattle call for 2016 presidential candidates
  • Some popular Republicans weren't invited; some not-so-popular ones were

Washington (CNN) -- Take a political party trying to find its way, add thousands of conservative leaders and activists gathered from across the country, mix in the first real cattle call in next race for the White House, and controversies over who is allowed to speak and you get CPAC 2013.

The Conservative Political Action Conference touts itself as the largest and oldest annual gathering of conservatives. The three-day event is considered a good gauge of the mood of the conservative movement, but it's also increasingly criticized as more political carnival than conference.

Once again the conference, which kicks off Thursday at a new venue outside the nation's capital, will spotlight the ages-old divide in the GOP between the establishment and center versus the grassroots and the right.

"The Republican Party is the political expression of the conservative cause, not the cause itself. That's why there are always tensions between conservatives and Republicans at CPAC and there should be," Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos said.

"CPAC keeps Republicans honest and keeps conservatives responsible. It represents the core of the conservative cause," added Castellanos, who is spearheading a new super PAC called the NewRepublican.org to refocus the party's messaging and policy goals, and who will be master of ceremonies at CPAC's Ronald Reagan dinner Friday night.

Republican strategist and CNN contributor Ana Navarro says the conference is important because it's about sustaining enthusiasm of the base even in off years.

"It's not a policy-making forum. It is part rally, part political revival and part family reunion. CPAC does not claim to be the equivalent of the Republican Party," she said.

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And that party is in a period of reflection following the 2012 elections, when the GOP failed to win back the White House or control of the Senate. CPAC comes just days before the Republican National Committee unveils a much-anticipated examination of how the party performed in last year's elections.

The internal RNC report, following months of listening tours, is said to include what the party needs to work on for the future, including technology, vote by mail, fundraising, and other campaign mechanics, as well as outreach to specific demographic groups in hopes of identifying more effective ways to attract minority and younger voters.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the conference, much of the CPAC headlines have focused on who the American Conservative Union, which runs the event, had invited to speak, and who didn't receive invitations.

Among those who didn't is Chris Christie, the tough-talking New Jersey governor who is considered a leading prospect for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While popular among those in his party, Christie angered some on the right for his praise of President Barack Obama in the days just before last November's election for the federal response to Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the Garden State, and for his criticism of House Republicans for temporarily holding up federal aid following the storm.

Another popular GOP governor who may have designs on the White House who's not addressing the audience at CPAC is Virginia's Bob McDonnell, who earlier this year pushed though his statehouse a transportation plan that included tax increases, considered heresy among fiscal conservatives. Although McDonnell won't have a solo speaking role at CPAC, he will be part of a panel session at the conference.

The inclusion of Donald Trump and Mitt Romney has also been criticized.

Trump fueled conspiracy theories over Obama's birthplace and flirted with a run for the GOP nomination last cycle, and Romney, who lost the presidential race to Obama last November, was never fully embraced by conservatives.

While Romney represents the GOP's past, the party's future will also be on display.

CPAC is considered a popular cattle call for Republicans considering bids for the White House, and while Christie and McDonnell won't be addressing the crowd from the main stage, most of the other big Republican names who have 2016 on their minds will be there.

"CPAC is where all 2016 candidates need to go to pass the conservative litmus test: Are they for freedom, or for something less?" Castellanos said.

Those potential candidates include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky; Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was last year's GOP vice presidential nominee, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who as a 2012 Republican presidential candidate battled Romney deep into the primary calendar, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who raised his national stature by surviving a high-profile recall attempt last year, and Texas Gov. and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Perry.

"It's hard to deny CPAC has become a must-do event for anyone remotely musing about running for the Republican nomination," Navarro said. "There's not many other events were they all accept the invitation and are happy to parade one after the other, modeling in their swim suits and evening gowns hoping to be amongst the finalists."

And while 2016 is a long way off, Santorum's top political adviser says there's a we can learn from this year's conference.

And even though the 2016 election is a long way off, Santorum's top political adviser says there's still a lot we can learn from this year's conference about the next race for the White House.

"After the disastrous elections of 2012, this CPAC meeting is particularly important," John Brabender said. "It will be an unique opportunity to find out who the real leaders of the conservative movement are moving forward, as well as hear their specific ideas for how we can be true to conservative values while also being successful on Election Day."

CPAC ends with its GOP presidential nomination straw poll, which is considered a key gauge of conservative sentiment, and garners much media attention. But there's been plenty of criticism in recent years that the straw poll is not the indicator that it once was.

Last year, for the first time, there was not only a straw poll of activists attending the conference, but also national survey of conservative voters conducted by CPAC organizers.

"Last year we not only did a straw poll but also had a national poll we announced simultaneously," ACU chairman Al Cardenas said. "The outcomes were identical. The same order of top three finishers in the straw poll were the same order as the top three finishers in the national poll and so to those skeptics who were concerned about the accuracy of the straw poll, the national poll provided empirical evidence that it was pretty good representative sample of what's going on."

Romney finished first in both polls, ahead of Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

For all the criticism, the conference continues to grow in size. For years CPAC, which turns 40 this year, was held at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in the nation's capital. But CPAC outgrew the old location, which Cardenas touts as another indication that the conservative movement is alive and well. CPAC be held this year for the first time at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside Washington, in Prince George's County, Maryland.

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