GOP Pow-Wow

02.09.12

Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Sarah Palin, & Other Things to Watch For at CPAC

As the GOP primaries go into a lull, attention swings this weekend to CPAC, where Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich will speak, Paul Ryan will keynote, Occupy DC will protest, a presidential straw poll will be held, and everyone will look for clues of who Sarah Palin will endorse.

Who needs more GOP primaries? Although the campaign to select a Republican nominee has just started a quiet period, there will be more than enough political excitement this weekend in Washington, D.C. at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. If you’re giddy about the presidential race, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will speak; if you’re interested in conservative ideas, Paul Ryan will be giving the keynote address; if you’re eager to meet C-list celebrities, Stephen Baldwin and Chuck Woolery will both be speaking; and if you’re just looking for love, there will be a conservative dating event as well. And, if you’re a political reporter looking for another delegate-free presidential vote to cover after Tuesday night, there will be a presidential straw poll as well.

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Watch Michele Bachmann's CPAC gaffes.

CPAC is a nearly 40-year-old event held by the American Conservative Union annually, and has been likened to a “Mardi Gras for the Right.” According to Alyssa Farah, the communications director of the College Republican National Committee who has attended the conference every year since she was a freshman at Patrick Henry College, “its giant strategy session meets party.” By day, it’s a frantic political networking event, with attendees “going in and out of different speakers and trying to brush elbows.” By night, it becomes “a much more informal atmosphere” with “cocktail receptions,” culminating in the Reaganpalooza party on the last night of the conference, held at the Teatro Goldoni, a pricy Italian restaurant on K Street.

The event in recent years also been has been punctuated with controversy over the participation of a GLBT Republican group, GOProud. Its participation in the past sparked controversy, as other social-conservative organizations like the Family Research Council and the Concerned Women of America boycotted in protest. This year, however, GOProud was dropped as a co-sponsor. (Although to balance things out, CPAC excluded the John Birch Society as well). According to GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia, “this was the best thing that ever happened” to the organization, which advocates for “gay conservatives and their allies.” He said “all the folks that ranted and raved did nothing but good stuff [and] raise[d] our credibility, membership and budget.”

But while the fireworks over the participation of GOProud are now relegated to the past, the rise of Occupy Wall Street has raised the potential for new conflict. Occupy DC has announced that it will “Occupy CPAC” to protest what it terms “a gathering of bigots, media mouthpieces, corrupt politicians, and their 1 percent elite puppet masters.” The presence of Occupiers should not create any internal conflict among conference attendees, but it does create a significant potential for protests and unrest around the conference, which is being held at a Washington, D.C. hotel. But whatever media frenzy the occupiers may create will pale compared with the infinitely more polarizing and headline-grabbing force of Sarah Palin, who will be present.

If you’re eager to meet C-list celebrities, Stephen Baldwin and Chuck Woolery will speak; if you’re just looking for love, there will be a conservative dating event.

Palin, who has never before appeared at CPAC, will be speaking before thousands of active movement conservatives, and the national political media, in the midst of a contentious GOP presidential primary. Although she has yet to endorse a candidate, the 2008 vice presidential nominee has frequently spoken highly of Newt Gingrich. Her husband, Todd, has even endorsed the former House speaker. Given Rick Santorum’s big night last Tuesday, an endorsement of Gingrich would be a huge boost for a campaign that has struggled since losing the winner-take-all primary in Florida at the end of January. Whether Palin explicitly endorses Gingrich or not, her speech is sure to be pored over by the national media, practicing a kind of Kremlinology, Wasilla-style, to get hints of her views on the race.

The most important moment for those looking for portents of what’s to come in the GOP primary contest is the annual presidential straw poll held on the last day of the conference. Although Ron Paul has won this popularity contest the past two years by “stacking the deck” according to chief Santorum strategist John Brabender, the straw pool looms as having some significance, since as it is being held at the beginning of the February hiatus in the GOP primary race. Further, Paul is at a comparative disadvantage this year because he won’t be at CPAC, unlike his three main competitors—instead, he will be campaigning in Maine, in what Brabender terms “a real race.” The CPAC straw poll isn’t as critical as, say, a nonbinding primary in Missouri, but it still will be viewed as an indicator of the candidates’ relative popularity in the conservative movement. Plus, it’s the only election that’s also the pregame party for Reaganpalooza.