At CPAC, The Future Looks Libertarian

After a disappointing presidential election with establishment candidate Mitt Romney, the Conservative Political Action Committee looks to its libertarians for resurrection.

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Molly Riley / Polaris

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) arrives to address the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) March 14, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland.

National Harbor, MD — Give Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) points for timing: the 2013 Conservative Political Action Committee is shaping up to be a libertarian victory lap.

Riding high a week after his 13-hour filibuster against the Obama administration’s drone policy, Paul was greeted with wild applause and is seen as a lock to win the conference’s annual straw poll. The halls of the massive convention center and hotel were packed with “Stand with Rand” stickers and signs. Elsewhere the libertarian-leaning Tea Party News Network is a major sponsor of the program, providing complimentary wi-fi for all attendees. More moderate 2016 contenders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell weren’t invited. Sen. Marco Rubio was greeted tepidly in advance of Paul’s address.

The libertarian domination of CPAC follows years of growing support at the annual conference starting from the final years of the George W. Bush administration, forming a schism in the Republican Party the GOP has yet to repair. And after the defeat of Mitt Romney, who won the nomination on the support of establishment conservatives, the insurgent and fiercely independent groups have claimed this CPAC as their time to shine.

(MORE: Rand Paul Steals Show From Marco Rubio at CPAC)

There are panels on the dangers of the United Nations, questioning climate science, and the National Rifle Association is impossible to miss with a massive studio just outside the main auditorium.

Helping their efforts in a presidential and congressional off-year and a diminished college crowd due to a new location nearly 30-minutes outside of D.C., the crowd is limited to the professionals: donors, activists and the die-hard grassroots. For Paul, who has long benefited from a strong tea party and libertarian base, that meant a guaranteed strong showing

Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, won the 2010 and 2011 straw polls, and a self-described “severely conservative” Mitt Romney took the top spot in the midst of last year’s presidential campaign — owing largely to a better effort at busing college supporters than his less organized rivals.

The younger Paul even scored overwhelming applause at the conservative conference for decriminalizing drug use, speaking for the “Facebook Generation” that he believes that Republican Party needs to embrace at the expense of “moss-covered” stalwarts like Sen. John McCain.

(MORE: A Real Live Filibuster!)

"Stand With Rand"

Maunel Balce Ceneta/AP

“They are the core though of the leave-me-alone coalition,” Paul said. “They doubt Social Security will be there for them, they worry about jobs and rent and money and student loans… They aren’t afraid of individual liberty. Ask the Facebook generation if we should put a kid in jail for the non-violent crime of drug use and you’ll hear a resounding ‘no.’ Ask the Facebook generation if they want to bail out too big to fail banks with their hard earned tax dollars and you’ll hear a ‘hell no.’”

But mainstream conservatives, who have been somewhat marginalized at the public conference events, doubt that the Paul-fad will last. Indeed, Paul laid out an expansive agenda of shrinking the size of government both at home and abroad — a message that puts him at odds respectively with many of his party’s social conservatives and neo-cons, and the majority of his potential presidential opponents.

“What’s after drones,” asked Republican operative Matt Mackowiak, echoing the concerns of many mainline conservatives. “What’s the next constitutional fight on the horizon? Obamacare’s done. They need to show that this is sustainable.”

MORE: A Wake-Up Call On Drones: What the John Brennan Debate Achieved