It’s That Time Again: Rubio, Paul to Headline CPAC

Probable Republican presidential contenders get ready to court conservatives at the annual event, but will Chris Christie be invited this time?

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - MARCH 14: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) addresses the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) March 14, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland. A slate of important conserative leaders are slated to speak during the the American Conservative Union's annual conference. 
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Jan. 16, 2014, 4 a.m.

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.

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