Your CPAC Viewing Guide: 6 Story Lines to Watch

Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum. Even Rick Perry. Can a 2016 junkie ask for anything more?

Washington DC, Feb 18. General view of the CPAC 2010 conference in Washington DC. (Newscom TagID: ptsphotoshot290683)     [Photo via Newscom]
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
March 5, 2014, 4:27 p.m.

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.

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