CPAC 2011: What to Expect at the GOP’s Annual Cattle Call

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The Conservative Political Action Conference, a three-day carnival of Republican ladder-climbers and red meat throwers, convenes Thursday in Washington . The nearly 40-year-old tradition is expected to attract 10,000 activists and set the tone for a party navigating new highs and old divides on its way to a presidential nomination fight.

David Keene, chairman of CPAC’s parent organization since 1984, stepped down Wednesday, expediting a long-expected move to the NRA. There are plenty of conservatives who aren’t sad to see him go. CPAC has always had a libertarian bent both in its ideological leanings and its broad-minded acceptance of diverse participants. (The tinfoil-chapeaued members of the John Birch Society co-sponsored last year’s gathering.) That dynamic has caused tension in recent years as social conservative organizations chafed at the inclusion of Muslim and gay groups. The Family Research Council spun off their own convention in 2006, but the schism has only widened with gay Republican group GOProud now co-sponsoring CPAC. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, The Heritage Foundation, a flagship conservative policy think tank, and others have joined the boycott this year.

For all its lumps, CPAC remains the premiere annual gathering of activists on the right. Its hotel ballrooms are the cathedrals in which the conservative faithful congregate, ambitious Republican lawmakers evangelize from the pulpit, and a straw poll is taken to determine whom the party should canonize with its presidential nomination. The poll is more a measure of attendance than electoral viability though. Candidates sometimes buy up hundreds of tickets and give them to supporters to tip the scales, while groups like “Students For Daniels” and “Evangelicals for Mitt” press their case among attendees. Ron Paul won last year’s straw poll not because he was the anointed frontrunner, but because his disciples had the strongest showing.

Along with Paul, this year’s ballot will include Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, South Dakota Senator John Thune, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, ex-Senator Rick Santorum as well as governors Haley Barbour, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels, and former governors Huckabee, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney.  A third of them won’t be present at the conference. Half of them probably aren’t running for president. But the straw poll results announced Saturday will nonetheless provide some clues as to where the heart, if not the mind, of movement conservatism lies as the Republican presidential primary draws near.

If CPAC 2011’s lineup is any indication, its heart still lies with the Tea Party.  The headliner spot on Saturday afternoon is typically reserved for a big personality: the draw. In 2010, Glenn Beck did the honors, Rush Limbaugh before that. This year’s keynote will be delivered by freshman congressman Allen West, the hard-charging Republican from Florida’s 22nd district who, in his speech to CPAC last year, explained how his parents instilled in him a love of free market solutions and why the Democrats’ agenda is equivalent to Mao’s. Rep. Paul Ryan, the closest thing the Tea Party has to a policy leader, and Bachmann, who gave the Tea Party response to Obama’s state of the union address, will both be on hand. The newest additions to the CPAC lineup are every bit as steeped in the movement. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ron Johnson, all of whom were elected in November and are arguably the Senate’s purest Tea Partiers, each will address the crowd. Although there’s blue blood mixed in with the new blood – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a speaking slot – overall, the agenda reflects the fiscal-issues-first grassroots that helped fuel the Republican resurgence of 2010.

Tea Party or no, red meat is always the entree du jour at these kinds of events. In a year before a presidential election, speeches from potential candidates promise heaping helpings. For Republicans like Barbour, Daniels and Thune on the margins of an ill-defined field, CPAC affords an opportunity to show their ambition. Pawlenty’s most urgent need is to excite a base that has so far been unmoved by his mild Midwestern manner. Romney, the putative frontrunner, has been busy sharpening his rhetoric by revising his recent book to take harder lines against Obama’s economic stimulus and health reform policies. Gingrich’s default mode is off-the-charts levels of bombast, which he manages to elevate each year for CPAC. In short, expect to hear a lot about the evils of Barack Obama.