Thousands of conservative activists descend on Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The gathering is an opportunity for rising GOP politicians to polish their tea-party credentials and for new faces to emerge.
Here are the storylines to watch:
Has Marco Rubio turned the corner on immigration?
Marco Rubio, once a darling of the conservative movement, fell out of favor in 2013 as he pushed a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate that included a path to legalization. Ever since, he's been trying to rehabilitate his reputation with the conservative grass roots that vaulted him onto the national stage. He's won back the hawkish wing of the party with his firm stands on foreign policy. He's courted the donor class behind closed doors. But the senator's Thursday lunchtime speech to CPAC will be his most public test yet of whether he's turned the corner among the tea-party base.
What kind of reception does Mitch McConnell get?
It's getting harder and harder these days to keep track of which conservative groups are trying to get rid of which congressional leader. The Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks are both trying to oust Mitch McConnell. Those same groups are pushing to fire John Boehner as speaker, as is the Tea Party Patriots. Boehner isn't venturing into the lion's den of CPAC this year. But McConnell, who faces a contested primary against businessman Matt Bevin, will be there on Thursday. He speaks after a panel titled "Does the U.S. Congress Matter Anymore? Executive Orders AND the Hopelessness of EVER Curtailing Federal Spending." McConnell is a core member of the GOP leadership and the object of disappointment for a compromise-weary base. McConnell isn't an electrifying speaker but he can dish political red meat with the best of them. Will it be enough to hold the boo-birds at bay?
Do the foreign policy hawks or doves take flight?
The fact that the 2014 CPAC occurs amid an international standoff over Russia's incursion into Crimea will highlight the division inside the Republican Party over America's posture abroad. On one side is the libertarian, noninterventionist wing led by Sen. Rand Paul, who told The Washington Post this week, "Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don't think that is a good idea." On the other is the traditional, hawkish wing of the party that argues for strong stands abroad. The fascinating ideological debate will play out on stage and throughout the halls.
Can Chris Christie put Superstorm Sandy behind him?
Gov. Chris Christie wasn't invited to CPAC in 2013. Not after he appeared alongside President Obama only days before the 2012 election in a scene that helped make Obama look presidential. The bipartisan touring of New Jersey sites damaged by Sandy deeply irked Republican activists across the country who watched as Mitt Romney's shot at the White House fizzled. But a year later, Christie has come under fire from Democrats (and Jersey residents) for his administration's traffic-snarling scandal — and Republicans have closed ranks. As former Obama adviser David Axelrod put it on MSNBC, "Right-wing Republicans are latching on to him a little bit because they think that he's being persecuted." CPAC attendees won't ever be Christie's base, but if he wants to be the 2016 nominee he needs them not to view him as a party pariah.
Who wins the straw poll?
No, the winner of the 2014 CPAC straw poll is not a shoo-in as the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. The last two winners in the midterm years before a presidential primary were Sen. George Allen (2006) and Rep. Ron Paul (2010) — and you saw how much good that did them. Still, the exercise does demonstrate a certain degree of grassroots excitement, or at least organizational muscle. Sen. Rand Paul carried the day in 2013 and in fact a Paul (Ron or Rand) or Romney has finished atop the straw poll in every year since 2007. Will 2014 bring new blood?
Does a new (or old) star emerge for 2016?
Rick Perry entered the 2012 presidential race last and to great fanfare, only to flame out months later. He's back, quietly laying the groundwork for another potential run in 2016 and will be one of a trio of failed 2012ers, along with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, to address the CPAC crowd. All three, but especially Perry and Santorum, are out to prove they are still relevant and not retreads. But they must fend off all the relatively fresh faces of the party — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio in the Senate and a handful of GOP governors across the country. CPAC is where most of them will focus on wooing the activists that comprise the backbone of any national campaign.