STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference - CPAC for short -is underway in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump hinted of possible presidential bids. Today and tomorrow, other potential Republican candidates for 2012 will speak to an audience that includes many enthusiastic college students and Tea Party activists.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: Two years ago, the Tea Party didn't exist. Last year the movement made something of a splash at CPAC as the new kid on the conservative block. This year, Tea Party energy is front and center. Representative Michele Bachmann gave the opening speech and other Tea Party heroes spoke as well. Brand new Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky gave a shout out to those who made his election possible.

Senator RAND PAUL (Republican, Kentucky): I'm not sure if I heard it. Is there anybody here from the Tea Party?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. PAUL: Are we going to let Washington co-opt the Tea Party?

Unidentified People: No.

Unidentified Man: Hell no.

Sen. PAUL: Will you fight for and help me defend the Constitution?

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: But even the Tea Party contingent isn't as big as the crush of college students who flock to CPAC every year. It's a mid-winter escape from campus, and the final tally is expected to show that as many as half of all CPAC attendees are students.

There were long lines at the student registration tables yesterday.

Unidentified Woman: OK. (Unintelligible)

GONYEA: It's part of a concerted effort by the conservative movement to get young people involved.

Kevin Seballa is from Stony Brook University in New York State. He's a fiscal conservative.

Mr. KEVIN SEBALLA (Student, Stony Brook University): Like, over the past couple of years, after seeing bailout after bailout, bad spending policy after bad spending policy, one day I just decided, you know what? Enough is enough. So I joined the Tea Party and I started one on campus.

GONYEA: Polls nationally show young people more likely to support same-sex marriage. That's evident at this conservative conference as well.

Josh Kunkle is a senior at Manchester College in Indiana. He spoke about that topic - and abortion - and had some advice.

Mr. JOSH KUNKLE (Student, Manchester College): The pro-life movement is definitely very appealing to younger evangelical Christians (unintelligible) definitely the whole pushing, like, gay marriage thing, that's more towards older folks. I don't feel like our generation really cares about that at all.

GONYEA: But for all of the focus on the youth, the biggest moment of day one of CPAC came when the organization gave its Defender of the Constitution Award to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The award was preceded by a surprise: Rumsfeld was introduced by his old friend Dick Cheney. The crowd erupted.

Unidentified People: USA, USA!

GONYEA: Cheney, who wears an external heart pump, moved well and looked healthier than he has at some appearances over the past year. He jokingly acknowledged the crowd in typically unsentimental fashion.

Former Vice President DICK CHENEY: All right, sit down and shut up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: There were loud cheers for both Cheney and Rumsfeld. There was also some heckling by some in the crowd opposed to the war in Iraq and its costs. Still, the applause drowned out the booing. Here's Rumsfeld...

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Defense Secretary): It's good to be here. I have been around so long that I remember a time when CPAC did not exist, when Ronald Reagan was still an actor, when Barry Goldwater was our candidate for president, and we only worried about socialism outside of the United States.

GONYEA: Rumsfeld joked that there's still time for Cheney to get on the ballot in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Meantime, those who are more likely to be in those early voting states continued their parade before the CPAC audience over the next two days. A presidential straw poll will be held tomorrow.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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