Meet the kinder, gentler Conservative Political Action Conference.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, snubbed last year after palling around with President Obama, is coming. So is GOProud, the gay-rights group that was banned for the past few years amid noisy boycotts from critics and supporters. There's even a panel debating the merits of medical marijuana.
"CPAC is about finding conservative solutions to every challenge in America and not just saying 'no,' " said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the conference in Washington. "We're determined to win the majority of American support."
The annual debate over CPAC's participants and focus reflects the broader, ongoing dialogue over growing the conservative movement and the Republican Party without compromising core principles. Gay rights are a major part of that debate, as conservative groups remain firmly opposed to gay marriage despite polls showing increasing and majority support.
The dispute with GOProud dates back to 2011, when a number of socially conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council, objected to the group's involvement and declined to participate. Insults were traded between GOProud leaders and ACU board members, culminating in the group's exclusion.
Two former GOProud summer interns, Ross Hemminger and Matt Bechstein, took over last summer and sought to repair the bitterly frayed relationship. Under a compromise reached last week, they will attend the March 6-8 gathering as guests, without sponsorship or a booth. GOProud sees the lower-profile role as an important first step.
"We really just want to be part of the conservative movement," said Hemminger, a veteran of the losing Senate campaigns by Scott Brown and Gabriel Gomez in Massachusetts. "We want to establish a fruitful and respectful relationship."
Dan Schneider, executive director of the ACU, praised the GOProud directors for their "new vision" of promoting conservative principles from gun rights to opposition to abortion.
"We welcome GOProud's attendance at this year's CPAC conference," Schneider said in an e-mail. "I believe their presence could help establish a productive relationship in the future."
His comments represents a major shift in tone. But not in policy -- until GOProud is allowed to co-sponsor the conference, said Jimmy LaSalvia, GOProud's former executive director. "There has been no change in the ACU's policy since 2011," LaSalvia said in an e-mail. "There likely won't be real change at the ACU until their old, out-of-touch leadership retires."
In addition to bringing together thousands of conservative activists from around the country, CPAC serves as an informal cattle call for potential presidential contenders. This year's crop includes Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal—none of whom have come out in favor of gay marriage.
But 65 percent of CPAC's participants are under 25 years old, and polls show acceptance of gay marriage is highest among young people. Hemminger and Bechstein, both in their 20s, say they hope to open GOProud chapters in all 50 states. Neither of them lives in Washington, and they see themselves more as grassroots organizers than spokesmen for gay rights.
"We want to help grow the Republican Party," said Bechstein, who lives in Southern California. "Our agenda is to get Republicans—ideally pro-gay Republicans—elected."
In a sign of the times, Bechstein pointed to Republicans running for governor in two Democratic-leaning states that that allow gay marriage. Charlie Baker, who chose an openly gay Republican as his running mate in his 2010 bid in Massachusetts, is vying for governor again. His running mate this time is a former lawmaker who recently came out in favor of gay marriage. And in California, former U.S. Treasury official Neal Kashkari is running for governor as a fiscal conservative who also happens to support abortion rights and gay marriage. "That's my platform, jobs and education. That's it," he said when he announced his campaign last month. One of the leading House Republican recruits, former San Diego councilman Carl DeMaio, is openly gay and featured his same-sex partner in a recent campaign advertisement.
After the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in December that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, Gov. Susana Martinez said she wouldn't push for a constitutional ban, calling it "the law of the land." The slow but growing acceptance of gay marriage among elected Republicans is striking in comparison to the unity shown in opposition to abortion rights. Last month, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus joined an anti-abortion march and the party passed a resolution saying it would not back down from its position.
"People are beginning to ask me why I'm a gay Republican less and less, which means we're successful," said Hemminger, who lives in Boston. "Things really are changing."