For GOP Hopefuls, CPAC Is The Place To Be This Week

The Conservative Political Action Conference is drawing a huge crowd of politicians, activists and Republican presidential hopefuls, all looking to break the Republican Party's recent string of presidential election losses. It kicked off Thursday with speeches by two young senators interested in the White House — Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

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The last time conservatives held their big annual gathering, they were absolutely certain of victory. As we heard yesterday, it was simply assumed at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference that Republicans would win last fall's election. At this year's meeting, conservatives are defending their political positions in the face of repeated defeat.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson starts our coverage.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Anyone who's anyone on the right shows up for CPAC. It's become such as required stop for Republicans on the road to the White House, that it was big news when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell were pointedly not invited to speak.

Yesterday, conservatives heard a sobering message from pollster Whit Ayres.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

WHIT AYRES: We are losing the battle against secular socialism at the moment. For the last six presidential elections, we've lost the popular vote in five of them.

LIASSON: But, Ayres said...

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AYRES: I am absolutely convinced that we are only one candidate and one election away from resurrection.

LIASSON: For Republicans hoping to be that one candidate, CPAC was the place to be. Marco Rubio, the young Cuban-American senator from Florida who's taken a leading role in the bipartisan push to pass comprehensive immigration reform, spoke yesterday, without mentioning immigration at all. Instead, he defended conservative social values.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot. Just because we believe that life, all life, all human life is worthy of protection at every stage in its development does not make you a chauvinist.

LIASSON: Rubio also said the GOP needed to stop being seen as the party fighting for the people who've already made it and start being the voice for the hardworking middle class. He acknowledged offering a set of familiar Republican proposals: free trade, school choice, low taxes.

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RUBIO: And I'll you what the criticism on the left is going to be, that he didn't offer any new ideas. And there's the fallacy of it: We don't need a new idea. There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works.

LIASSON: Rand Paul, another new generation conservative considering a White House bid, took a brasher, more anti-establishment approach that thrilled the crowd. Paul's 13-hour live filibuster last week against the administration's drone program has vaulted him to new prominence - as the leader of the party's libertarian Tea Party wing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR RAND PAUL: The Republican Party has to change by going forward to the classical and timeless ideas enshrined in our Constitution. When we understand that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then we'll become the dominant national party again.

LIASSON: Paul laid out his libertarian agenda: cut foreign aid, eliminate the Education Department, create a flat tax and legalize some drug use. He didn't hesitate to violate Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: criticizing his fellow Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PAUL: The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don't think we need to name any names, do we?

LIASSON: Most in the hall assumed Paul was referring to Senator John McCain, who has referred to Paul as one of the wacko birds in the Senate.

Outside, in the exhibit hall, there was a consensus that the Republican Party's problems could be solved by a return to core conservative principles.

Attorney Mandi Campbell is a conservative legal activist.

MADI CAMPBELL: The underlying policies of the Republican Party are good. I think that most of the time, the problem is that we aren't choosing candidates that really believe in them. And people don't want fake candidates.

LIASSON: This time around, conservatives at CPAC seem to think they will find real candidates to follow. Virginia Tea Party activist Nancy Smith doesn't think she'll have to settle for a faux conservative in 2016.

NANCY SMITH: There's really a nice, new crop of conservatives who are out there doing the hard work, the Ted Cruz's, the Rand Paul's, the Marco Rubio's, the Cucinnelli's. So I think there's really a new breed of young men and women who really can lead the charge, and I'd say it's pretty exciting.

LIASSON: Today, the speakers will include some new and some old faces, including Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum. On Saturday, CPAC will announce the results of its annual presidential straw poll. So far, only two of its winners have gone on to become president: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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