As CPAC Opens, GOP Stars Take Turns At The Podium

The Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists, routinely attracts big names in the Republican party — and this year's no different. It starts Thursday.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Today at a convention center outside Washington, D.C., the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, held its annual meeting. It's the yearly gathering of the Republican Party's conservative base in all its variety. And among today's speakers was a presidential contender who hasn't always been welcome at CPAC: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was there and joins us now. And, Mara, this is usually described as a window into what it means to be conservative. What did you hear today? What's the state of conservatism right now?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I would say that in the face of tremendous change away from conservatism nationally on issues like gay marriage or marijuana, conservatives can really take a victory lap because the Republican Party, which is where most of these conservatives live, is continuing to move to the right. In Texas primaries this week, you saw a whole slate of Republican candidates much more conservatives than the ones they are running to replace - they won - even though in most cases in Texas and around the country, the establishment of the Republican Party seems to be effectively, or at least a little bit more effectively, managing the Tea Party this cycle.

CORNISH: After the last election, there was so much talk about need for GOP reinvention, at least among establishment Republicans. Did that come up at CPAC today?

LIASSON: Well, that is always the big question that hangs over any gathering of Republicans or conservatives, how to win national elections again. And when you ask the folks at CPAC, their answer is pretty clear: Be bolder, be more assertive, be more purely conservative. Ted Cruz, who's a real Tea Party favorite, described a bumper sticker that sums up the disgust, which what these conservative activists view the Republican establishment. He said it said: Vote Republican, we waste less.

And there was Utah Senator Mike Lee who told CPAC that it's very tempting for Republicans to do nothing in face of the Democrats' problems and just win the next election by default. That certainly seems to be the Republican strategy in Congress. But he said that Republicans have to redefine the conservative movement, rebuild the Republican Party by adopting a conservative reform agenda that he thinks should be built around welfare reform, job training and ending corporate welfare.

CORNISH: Now this meeting is also a chance for GOP stars and, of course, would-be stars to share their message. Who was the big draw today?

LIASSON: Well, the biggest suspense was how Chris Christie would be received. He was the once and, who knows, maybe once again - the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. He was pointedly not invited to CPAC last year because conservatives were angry about how he embraced President Obama during Superstorm Sandy and because he supported some gun control. But he was there today, pushing his theme that the party needed to be more positive, to say what they're for and not just what they're against.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: The reason we have to start talking about what we're for and not continuing to rail against what we're against is because of one simple reason: Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that's what we have to stand up for.

LIASSON: Christie cited examples of Republican reform governors taking on the public sector unions and getting things done while Washington just talks. He did get a pretty good reception. The hall was about three-quarters full when he spoke, not as much energy in general as last year's meeting. Christie did not mention Bridgegate, not surprisingly. And that really isn't an issue with the CPAC crowd.

Christie has never been a favorite of the conservative base because they see him as too moderate. And in the latest Washington Post poll, 30 percent of Republicans say they would never vote for him. So you can see the kind of hurdle he'd have in getting the nomination.

CORNISH: So who else were these conservatives excited about?

LIASSON: Well, they're very excited about someone who's coming tomorrow, and that's Rand Paul. CPAC has always been a friendly crowd for Rand Paul and his dad, Ron Paul. They've both won the CPAC straw poll before. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal also came today, and the crowd ate up his harsh anti-Obama broadsides. Jindal always seems like he's running for vice president for the attack dog role.

Today, he said that President Obama was not almost as bad as Jimmy Carter, but he was actually worse than Jimmy Carter. And for a conservative Republican, that is a very big dis. Marco Rubio was also well-received today. He was once considered the brightest star in the Republican 2016 field. But then he angered the base when he embraced comprehensive immigration reform.

Today, he didn't talk about that. And conservatives I talked to say Rubio has gone a long way to rehabilitate himself. He is Hispanic, which still gives him a lot of cache for 2016, when the Republican Party is going to have to figure out some way to win more Hispanic votes.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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