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5 things we learned from CPAC

By Peter Hamby, CNN National Political Reporter
March 9, 2014 -- Updated 1316 GMT (2116 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Confluence of big-name Republican speakers makes CPAC impossible to ignore
  • Rand Paul's straw poll win raises profile and expectations
  • Even as Clinton is scrutinized as 2016 contender, Obama still CPAC's top bogeyman

National Harbor, Maryland (CNN) -- It would be a mistake to read too much into the speeches, breakout sessions and late-night parties that took place at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Thousands of right-leaning activists made the pilgrimage here this year, to a convention hall outside the nation's capital. They were greeted, as they are every year, by a bevy of candidates, bloggers, political operatives and more than a few hucksters out to make a buck.

But it's tough to glean any sweeping insight into the state of the conservative movement just by hanging out at CPAC for a few days and talking to its most rock-ribbed and outspoken partisans.

And yet: The confluence of big name Republican speakers -- many of them potential White House contenders -- makes the three-day event impossible to ignore.

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Here are five big takeaways from CPAC 2014:

1. This is Rand's house: Rand Paul's blowout win in the presidential straw poll Saturday -- he won more than a third of the vote, easily besting second-place finisher Ted Cruz -- cemented his place as the King of CPAC.

Rand Paul convincingly wins CPAC straw poll

Paul's address here on Friday, unapologetically heavy with libertarian sentiment, was far and away the best-received speech of the weekend. The room was packed and Paul, wearing jeans, was interrupted repeatedly by standing ovations. After his appearance, he joined his wife, Kelley, across the street from the convention center at a packed restaurant for an open bar happy hour with fired-up supporters.

Does his showing mean that Paul will be the GOP nominee in 2016? No. But it does affirm what reporters here had been saying all week: that CPAC is now, without question, his turf.

CPAC crowd treats Paul like a rock star

The face of CPAC has become younger in recent years -- it feels a little like spring break for College Republicans -- and more libertarian in the process. Paul also won the straw poll in 2013, and his father, Ron Paul, won in 2010 and 2011. The younger Paul was aided in his win this year by Young Americans for Liberty, which boasted that it recruited almost 500 activists to come to the event and cast ballots. Almost half of the straw poll vote came from 18- to 25-year-olds.

Paul's showing this weekend will only add to the perception that he's a top-tier Republican presidential contender who should be taken much more seriously than his father if he runs (and no one thinks he isn't running). The downside? The dominant straw poll raises expectations for his performance next year, when the GOP race for the White House will be in full swing.

2. Obama still conservative enemy No. 1: The national political conversation is already drifting toward 2016. But at CPAC, President Barack Obama was anything but a lame duck.

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Speaker after speaker listed Obama's unforgivable sins: taxes, spending, Obamacare, the IRS scandal, NSA surveillance, and on and on.

Strikingly, Hillary Clinton -- the Democratic Party's apparent nominee-in-waiting for 2016 -- went mostly unmentioned until Friday afternoon, the conference's second day. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee criticized the former secretary of state's handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Her name popped up twice more from the main stage on Saturday. Rep. Michele Bachmann said Clinton will face "tough questions" if she runs in 2016. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Clinton a "prison guard" of the past.

But Obama was far and away the chief bogeyman of CPAC. Even as pundits scrutinize Clinton's every move in the context of the next presidential campaign, conservatives aren't yet ready to look beyond the man who still occupies the White House.

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3. Pragmatists vs. purists: There's always a lot of chatter at CPAC about the various wings of the Republican Party that seem at odds with one another: the free market adherents, the national security hawks, the social conservatives. The growing influence of libertarianism has scrambled how the conservative movement sees itself. But political parties in this country have always been uneasy coalitions of various interests and ideologies. Squabbling is to be expected.

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There were hints this year that the pragmatists were gaining ground. In the Obama era, CPAC has earned a reputation for fire-breathing rhetoric and divisive commentary, but some of this year's biggest speeches had a softer edge. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie led the charge in calling for party unity in pursuit of winning elections. He was well received.

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Paul has called on the party to reach out to minorities and has proposed policy ideas -- including sentencing reform and economic "freedom zones" for low-income areas -- to achieve that goal. In a session about libertarianism, one panelist said children would be better raised by gay couples than single parents. No one booed.

Even Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party darling, urged the conservative faithful to be more open-minded. "We as conservatives have got to be far more engaged in finding converts than discarding heretics," Lee said on Thursday.

But the happy talk couldn't paper over the fact that conservative hard-liners, including several eyeing a 2016 presidential run, don't want conservative ideology to take a back seat to anything. And CPAC still booked a number of divisive and provocative speakers like Donald Trump and Bachmann.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum inveighed against win-at-all-costs Republicans -- a comment widely seen as a jab at Christie.

And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas warned Republicans against compromise, painting former GOP presidential nominees Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney as moderate squishes who lost nationally because they veered from conservative principles. His words drew a stern rebuke from McCain -- and a rare statement from Dole telling Cruz to check his facts.

4. Christie's move to the right has begun: We didn't learn anything new about Christie from his Thursday speech.

But it was how he presented himself that mattered -- and the Christie who showed up at CPAC was a far cry from the Christie who ran for re-election in blue-leaning New Jersey last year, winning in resounding fashion.

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That Christie was all about bipartisan legislative compromise, post-Sandy healing, and outreach to voters who don't traditionally feel comfortable with the GOP. His invitation to last year's CPAC was lost in the mail. Christie didn't mind.

This year's Christie more resembled the tea party hero of 2009, when he first won the governorship, and 2010, when he traveled the country in rock star fashion campaigning for GOP candidates. Christie reminded the crowd of his opposition to abortion, calling himself "proudly pro-life." He bashed unions and the media. He praised the Koch brothers.

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His speech should put to rest any doubts about his willingness to pivot to the right as he mounts a Republican presidential bid, even as he continues to be dogged by multiple controversies and investigations back home.

Christie and his team took his CPAC showing seriously. His top political advisers made the trip with him -- and they presumably left happy. Christie placed fourth in the CPAC straw poll, a finish that beat expectations and made for a nice talking point as he begins the work of repairing his tarnished relationship with conservatives.

5. What's wrong with CPAC? The question popped up again and again in conversations with veteran conference-goers: What's wrong with CPAC this year? The stakes at this year's event felt low -- and so did the energy.

There were, of course, the usual hordes of earnest, lanyard-wearing 20-somethings brimming with youthful enthusiasm. But the main ballroom at the Gaylord Convention Center in suburban Maryland was rarely full. Something felt off.

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Maybe it's because the conference is at its most exciting during presidential campaign years, when GOP candidates are jostling for attention from the conservative base.

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Or maybe it's because the tea party activists who arrived here in 2009 and 2010 as conquering insurgents are now just the regular cast of characters and movement hangers-on who show up every year, hawking their wares, snapping pictures with conservative celebrities, recording their podcasts and delivering a familiar litany of warmed-over attacks on Obama.

Whatever the reason, there were still plenty of journalists on hand to drink it all in. Thanks to CPAC's proximity to Washington, there always are. But the diplomatic standoff in Ukraine snuffed out the event's usual ability to command the Beltway news cycle. And when Democrats tried to make hay of some of the wackier comments made by speakers, few reporters seemed to care.

The headlines instead focused on the potential 2016 candidates who came here road-testing their messages. But aside from Paul, with his happy hour for young activists, the White House wannabes weren't doing much behind-the-scenes to court activists.

"This year is more subdued and doesn't have the kind of vibrant atmosphere of past confabs -- a result of conservatives being lost in the political wilderness for six years without a unifying conservative leader," said Dennis Lennox, a GOP activist and operative from Michigan who helped Mitt Romney line up support for the CPAC presidential straw polls in 2007 and 2008.

"It doesn't help that there is not a concerted effort by a likely presidential candidate, especially a dark horse who needs a boost in their profile among the foot soldiers who would be critical to carrying their candidacy in a primary that will be fully under way a year from now," he added.

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