Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky will be among the headliners at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, the conservative movement's annual pep rally and popularity contest for the Republican Party's likely presidential contenders.
Too early to be talking about 2016? Not really. The Iowa caucus is two years away, and if past cycles are any indication, candidates typically launch their campaigns more than six months before then. That means 2014 is the year when would-be candidates start securing big donors and laying the groundwork in early-voting states.
"This presidential cycle for Republicans starts earlier than ever, in part because it's the first time in a while we have an open seat without a leading candidate who has run before," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC. "We're almost off and running, and CPAC is the beginning of that journey."
Indeed, in contrast to Hillary Clinton's dominance on the Democratic side, the Republican field is wide open, featuring a slew of fast-rising newcomers and, possibly, a couple of also-rans from 2012. Paul won CPAC's straw poll in 2013, while Rubio came in a close second.
Rubio and Paul are the only speakers CPAC is announcing Thursday, but some familiar faces are expected, including Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum.
There are two wild cards: Chris Christie, notoriously snubbed by CPAC last year in part for palling around with President Obama after superstorm Sandy, and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who appears more likely to stay on the sidelines. The interest in the New Jersey governor will be particularly intense because of the scandal over his office's role in creating a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as part of a political vendetta.
Last year's CPAC gathering peaked at around 10,000 activists, and Cardenas said registration is running ahead for the March 6-8 convention at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland.
CPAC typically features a couple of signature moments that go on to frame the political narrative. In 2012, Mitt Romney declared himself "severely conservative," a phrase that neatly captured the former Massachusetts governor's effort to redefine himself for a primary electorate that leaned heavily to the right. Paul dubbed the GOP "stale and moss-covered" in 2013, laying the groundwork for a year rocked by friction between the party's old guard and the tea-party movement.
The conference has also reflected the Republican Party's struggle to keep up with a growing acceptance of gay marriage. After a conflict in which some CPAC participants threatened to boycott the conference over the participation of a gay-rights group, GOProud, Cardenas excluded the group for the past two years. That prompted others to stay away. The group's cofounder, Jimmy LaSalvia, recently left the Republican Party to become an independent.
"I spent my career trying to change the atmosphere in the conservative movement because I assumed the antigay bigotry would melt away," LaSalvia said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's time to pull the plug on the Republican Party."
Now, the group's new leadership is negotiating with CPAC about returning this year. "We are looking forward to having a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship with them," said GOProud Codirector Ross Hemminger.
The conference roughly coincides with the one-year anniversary of the Republican National Committee's sweeping review of the 2012 election. In a meeting with reporters Tuesday, RNC officials said they are making progress toward the goals set in the much-ballyhooed blueprint to take back the White House, including beefing up its data collection and digital prowess and reaching out to women, minorities, and young voters. Some three out of four of the national party's staff now work outside Washington in an effort to match the massive field operation established by President Obama's campaign.
But long before the RNC activates its ground game in 2016, ambitious Republicans like Rubio and Paul will be auditioning for friendly audiences in Washington and around the country.