CPAC Showcases Mix Of Conservative Visions

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference wraps Saturday. NPR's Don Gonyea gives the highlights from the annual gathering of conservatives.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Leading conservative politicians, activists and celebrities gathered this week at the National Harbor, a resort just outside of Washington, D.C., for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. This year's event comes after the big defeats that the movement suffered in last November's election. Now, they ponder their future and try to regroup, though they do so with no clear leader and no unified vision. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Friday at CPAC offered a pretty good cross-section of the mix of moods, personalities and voices that live side-by-side in conservative America today. Let's go through the day chronologically. First thing in the morning, the sound system in the hotel ballroom blasted this music to introduce Friday's first speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONALD TRUMP: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

O'JAYS: (Singing) Money, money, money, money...

TRUMP: Thank you very much. And he did very well with...

GONYEA: Eight forty-five A.M. may seem a bit early for a speech by a primetime star like Donald Trump. Still, he was ready with a mix of self-promotion, ridicule of his critics, disdain for the Obama administration and political advice, like this warning that Republicans should proceed warily when working with Democrats on immigration and a possible path to citizenship for the millions of people in the country illegally.

TRUMP: You can be out front, you can be the spearhead, you can do whatever you want to do, but every one of those 11 million people will be voting Democratic. It's just the way it works. And you have to be very, very careful.

GONYEA: Later in the morning, the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre took the stage. He found a friendly audience as he lashed out at those calling for changes to gun laws, specifically background checks before gun purchases.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: In the end, there are only two reasons for government to create that federal registry of gun owners - to tax them or to take them.

GONYEA: LaPierre was cheered. Even so, perhaps the day's most anticipated appearance was by Mitt Romney, in his first national speech since the election. Romney has never been a favorite of his party's conservatives. And while his appearance at CPAC was lampooned by conservative voices on Twitter, in the room the reception was both enthusiastic and very warm.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MITT ROMNEY: You touch my heart again. Thank you so very much.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: What a privilege to be here with you again.

GONYEA: It was clear an emotional moment for Romney. In his speech, he joked that he is hardly the person to give political advice, but he did offer some, telling the party to find its new leaders among the crop of Republican governors.

ROMNEY: I would urge us all to learn lessons that come from some of our greatest success stories, and that's 30 Republican governors across the country.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: They're winning elections, but more importantly they're solving problems - big problems, important problems.

GONYEA: If Romney's appearance offered a nod to a past election that most here would just as soon forget, the day's final speaker at a dinner gala last night was a man some see as a possible savior, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. His speech had a uniformly positive tone, saying if Republicans are to succeed they need to be a party of, quote, "inclusion and acceptance."

JEB BUSH: All too often, we're associated with being anti-everything. Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker and the list goes on and on and on.

GONYEA: Still, Bush often seemed rusty, even rushed. He's only recently reemerged on the national stage. And the applause at the end was tepid and brief - nothing like the cheers earlier in the conference for other potential GOP presidential contenders, Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. The CPAC gathering wraps up today. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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