The annual conference of the American Conservative Union, or CPAC, gets into gear on February 26 and promises to allow voters to take a look at Republican presidential hopefuls as they make appeals to conservative activists. Among the personalities slated to appear at the event at National Harbor near Washington DC are Dr. Ben Carson, Gov. Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul, Gov. Chris Christie, and former governor Jeb Bush. For Bush, it will afford him the first opportunity to engage with the grassroots of the conservative movement and test the water for potential supporters for a possible presidential run.
The movement has taken on a more libertarian caste of late, thereby giving Sen. Paul a more solid platform. A highlight of the conference will be the contention between the libertarian urges of politicos such as Paul, and middle of the road Republicans such as Bush. In recent days, activist and author Phyllis Schlafly – who has been a conservative stalwart for decades ever since Barry Goldwater ran for president in the early 1960s – bashed “kingmakers” and Washington political consultants for virtually crowning former governor Bush. The founder of the influential Eagle Forum recently wrote, “Do you get the message that the media buildup for Jeb Bush has begun and that the 2016 Republican National Convention may simply nominate for president another Establishment loser candidate?” Schlafly has long argued that conservatives should serve to influence the Republican party rather than mirror it. Such differences will be aired at CPAC on several issues.
Jeb Bush has alienated many conservatives because of his stance on immigration. Recently, he has shown support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In 2014, he drew the ire of conservatives when he said immigrants who enter the US illegally do so as an “act of love.” Gov. Chris Christie has refused to pin down his own views on immigration, even while he signed legislation in 2014 that permits in-state tuition for illegal immigrants studying at New Jersey colleges. Christie has lost some key donors to Bush. Conservative radio and TV personality Laura Ingraham is slated to interview Christie on stage at CPAC, thus affording him an opportunity to define himself on the issue. Ingraham is largely credited with the downfall of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia district ahead of the 2014 primary that saw him stumble.
2) Ted Cruz vs. Rand Paul
Sen. Paul, who garnered 31 percent in the 2014 CPAC straw poll, got triple the votes won by Sen. Cruz. In 2014, Cruz got an early morning speaking slot on the opening day of CPAC. But this year, he will speak at 1:40 p.m. on Feb. 27. If Cruz cannot rally the CPAC crowd and thus increase his straw poll votes, he may be seen as less-than-presidential timber. Cruz will field questions from Fox News personality Sean Hannity.
3) Peanut gallery
This year, CPAC organizers are requiring each presidential hopeful to submit to at least six minutes of questions as part of the 20 minutes they are on stage. Unscripted answers and pithy quotes, such as former governor Mitch Romney's “severely conservative” gaffe, are expected. In the case of Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both will use the 20 minutes at their disposal to answer questions lofted by Sean Hannity. CPAC is also accepting questions for the candidates from Twitter.
4) The CPAC straw poll
Presidential contenders have turned out supporters in years past to vote for them at previous CPAC straw polls. Romney bused students to CPAC in 2012, and bought tickets for others to ensure a favorable showing. But it was Rand Paul who won the straw poll the past two years.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush bombed a CPAC speech in 2013, and skipped the 2014 confab. If Bush is able to work the crowd he may get a favorable showing in the poll. He is good on his feet when answering questions, rather than working from a teleprompter.
5) Social conservatives
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a notable social conservative who will be absent at this year’s CPAC: which has been taken as evidence of the increasingly libertarian caste of the ACU. Some social conservatives feel marginalized at CPAC. For example, the president of Log Cabin Republicans – which supports same-sex marriage – will be featured at a CPAC panel.
Huckabee signaled his presidential ambitions by resigning from his Fox News show. His 2014 speech at CPAC did not light a fire among activists. He garnered only 2 percent in the CPAC straw poll that year. This year, he will be visiting South Carolina and Tennessee instead.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum is not expected to emphasize social issues such as abortion at CPAC. Evangelical Christians were a major support for the Catholic Pennsylvanian who was a firebrand for moral issues. But this year he will focus on foreign policy in his speech.
Bill Donohue - who leads the Catholic League - denounced CPAC for having extended an invitation to David Silverman of American Atheists to speak in 2014. Calling it a "disgrace," Donohue said in a statement last year "There is more than incompetence at work here. CPAC is a disgrace. They should have learned by now that big tents have a way of collapsing in the middle."
6) Breakout stars
Failed Senate candidate Carly Fiorina will take a coveted time slot between Christie and Cruz, thus ensuring a large audience. Having recently taken swipes at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has emboldened those who are looking for a woman to contend with the Clinton candidacy. This means she will have a huge audience. She is expected to deliver remarks about foreign policy and the US response to Russia. Since she is on the board of the American Conservative Union, the sponsor of CPAC, she is considered a favorite.
Other breakout stars will have a chance at CPAC. The initial speaker on Feb. 26 is neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Also on hand is Rick Perry, who speaks on Feb. 27 after Sen. Rubio. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will also have a opportunity to gain lost ground since his disastrous 2009 Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address. He will be sandwiched between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
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