Eight Things to Watch at the Conservative Political Action Conference

Fighting off a boycott and scrambling for a headliner, the biggest annual conservative gathering takes place this week. Eight things to watch at CPAC.

Some of the attendees of the 2011 CPAC. Clockwise from top left: Donald Rumsfeld, Allen West, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Kristi Noem, Andrew Breitbart. (AP Photo)

The right descends on Washington this week, as thousands of activists pour into the nation’s capital to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s a heady time—with Republicans having seized control of the House, closed the gap with Democrats in the Senate, and now gearing up for a chance to reclaim the White House in 2012. But all is not well at the old-line American Conservative Union, which throws the annual party.

The organization is embroiled in an embezzlement scandal. Fellow travelers are boycotting the whole affair because CPAC’s big tent allowed a gay Republican group inside. With one day left before kickoff, no headliner had been chosen. And longtime leader David Keene is said to be leaving the group after the conference.

So amid the turmoil, what’s a political junkie to look for at this year’s three-day orgy of ideas? An endless stream of 2012 presidential wannabes will preen for adoring fans and plentiful cameras. Donald Rumsfeld will be hailed as a conquering hero. A host of new conservative leaders will be welcomed to the club. And if that weren’t enough to whet your appetite, Pat Boone will be on hand, too!

1. The 2012 Hopefuls

For the fourth year running, Sarah Palin will be a no-show. Her loss is her prospective 2012 rivals’ gain. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and John Thune are supposed to be on hand for adoration. Best buds Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels will speak. too. But CPAC is most valuable for the candidates who have to scratch for attention. Rick Santorum is a go. John Bolton, too. Even pizza man Herman Cain will make the scene. No word on whether Donald Trump can find the time to mingle with the masses.

2. The No-Shows

Palin isn’t the only notable conservative sending regrets. New Jersey’s Chris Christie, the GOP’s favorite new governor, won’t be on hand. Nor will Florida’s Marco Rubio. Others are absenting themselves as part of an apparent protest. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a stalwart of the conservative movement, is bagging the whole thing, following the lead of groups like the Family Research Council, The Heritage Foundation, and Concerned Women for America. Some conservatives object to the libertarian tilt of the gathering, which welcomes GOProud, a gay conservative group, as a sponsor.

The Heritage Foundation, a stalwart of the conservative movement for decades, says it’s skipping the event—insisting that the decision was not made in response to “one issue.”

“CPAC is in many ways like American Idol,” says Brian Donahue. “It’s almost the tryouts.”

“We do hope CPAC more clearly defines what principles it wishes to promote in the future,” said Mike Gonzales, vice president of communications for Heritage. “I want to make clear we are not part of a broader movement against CPAC.”

Not everyone is giving GOProud the cold shoulder. Media prankster Andrew Breitbart is hosting a celebration with the group Thursday, billing it as “the party of the CPAC weekend.”

3. The Straw Poll

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After all the panel discussions, speeches, and endless networking, the conference will close with one concrete product—a straw poll for the 2012 presidential nomination. Last year’s winner was Ron Paul, who bested Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. So embarrassed were CPAC organizers with the libertarian darling’s victory that they rushed over to reporters to make sure the scribes knew there had been booing from the crowd when the results were announced. Romney beat McCain in the 2008 straw poll, which shows you just how much the yearnings of the CPAC crowd match the Republican electorate at large. Even activists probably don’t put much faith in the vote. “Many view the straw poll as almost tangential to all the happenings of CPAC,” said Republican political consultant Brian Donahue. “CPAC is in many ways like American Idol. It’s almost the tryouts… It’s about the speeches, the presence for the campaigns and seeing the reaction and like American Idol, you can’t make it to the finals if you don’t go to the tryouts.”

4. Rising Stars

This year’s CPAC will be a coming-out party for many of the young conservative lawmakers whose stars burn especially bright among the activists. Among the favorite sons and daughters are freshmen representatives like Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Allen West of Florida. CPAC has plastered West’s face on its advertising material along with Ann Coulter’s. Among other rising stars in attendance: Rand Paul and Pat Toomey. “Often you see people who started their career by giving a good speech, having a strong presence [at CPAC] and gradually become important figures in the conservative movement,” Donahue said.

5. The Must-See Events

Want to learn how to interrupt a congressional address by screaming at the president of the United States? There’s a panel for that. Rep. Joe Wilson of “You lie!” fame is giving a “congressional briefing.” Blogger Pamela Geller will unveil the trailer for her documentary, The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks. Park 51 founders Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan are listed as invited, but a CPAC spokesperson said he had no information about the event or whether they were coming. He quickly added that although the screening is being held at the conference, it is “not an official CPAC event.” Baldwin brother Stephen will teach the kids about conservative pop culture. He can start with Pat Boone, the leather-skinned crooner, who will receive a lifetime achievement award from his CPAC friends.

6. The Case of the Missing Headliner

CPAC likes to have a conservative big foot close out the show on Saturday night. In 2009, that was Rush Limbaugh’s job. In 2010, Glenn Beck has the honors. This year? Well, who knows? With one day to go, no one had yet been selected for the prime position. The duties seemed to be headed Sarah Palin’s way, but the former Alaska governor said thanks, but no thanks. Of course, if CPAC organizers wants to secure facetime on CNN, they know that Michele Bachmann is the most reliable draw.

Update: On Wednesday morning, Allen West announced that he had been asked to give the keynote address. “I’m humbled,” the Florida freshman and Tea Party favorite tweeted.

7. The Junior Varsity

On Friday afternoon, two-dozen college students will declaim for two minutes a pop, in a whirlwind contest to launch the next conservative superstar. While the Republican Party tends to be a respect-your-elders organization—it’s not called the Grand Old Party for nothing—CPAC caters to the youngs as well and has proven a launching pad for a few bright-eyed activists. Our personal favorite is Jonathan Krohn, who is still too young to drive, but parlayed his CPAC star turn two years ago into a bestselling book. “I’m not like a lot of my colleagues who think President Obama’s goal is trying to harm the country. That’s insanity. That’s out there. That’s loony tunes,” the reasonable young man told us over ice cream last year.

8. Rumsfeld’s Victory Lap

Move over, Ronald Reagan. Another conservative icon will seize the spotlight this week when the former defense secretary brings his just-released memoir to the get-together. How best to honor the man who oversaw the fiasco at Abu Ghraib? The American Conservative Union will be giving Rummy the “Defender of the Constitution” Award. Can’t make it to Washington this week? Rumsfeld will be headlining a CPAC jaunt to Sarah Palin country in July, floating on a weeklong cruise through Alaska. “The Holland American ms. Zuiderdam does a great job helping Type A conservatives relax and enjoy, with enough politics thrown in to keep us fully engaged with other like-minded friends,” ACU chief David Keene said, announcing the journey.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at Fox News from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.