Let the games begin! The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) begins Thursday. The buzzy annual gathering serves as a launching pad for GOPers considering a presidential run, and several candidates for 2016 are expected to speak at the confab in Maryland.
As Republicans continue to engage in some self-declared soul-searching following Mitt Romney’s big loss in November, here’s what you should be on the lookout for at this year’s CPAC.
1. Will the GOP strike a different note?
This is the Republicans’ big chance to reassert the party after re-evaluating what they stand for going forward. Recent polls show that the message–not necessarily the messenger–is the problem. Will speakers do more to reach out to minorities, women and the youth–three groups the GOP failed to capture in recent years? Do they strike a more conciliatory tone on immigration, healthcare, taxes, and social issues? This year’s conference was named “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives.” Will Republicans really look ahead, or stick to the principles and rhetoric of the past?
2. The annual straw poll
Each year CPAC conducts a straw poll, and the item that gets the most attention, of course, is the one about potential presidential candidates. Since 2007, Mitt Romney has won four times, including last year. Ron Paul won in 2010 and 2011.
3. Will Rand Paul bridge the divide between the Tea Party and mainstream GOPers?
Speaking of Ron Paul, many will be watching his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who made a big splash following his nearly 13-hour filibuster earlier this month. Now the Tea Party favorite is saying he’s “seriously considering” running for the White House. Questions loom about his candidacy: Can he appeal to establishment Republicans without alienating his Tea Party base? Will his tough abortion rhetoric fly in 2016? Will evangelical primary voters fall in love with a candidate who barely talks about religion? Would a lawmaker who has criticized the Civil Rights Act, who wants to basically eliminate the Department of Education, and opposes any government involvement in healthcare appeal to mainstream GOPers?
4. Can Jeb Bush move beyond his family name?
The former Florida governor and younger brother of former President George W. Bush will also be at CPAC. It’s his first time speaking at the event. He has said multiple times this month that he’s not ruling out a run in 2016. Look for Bush to talk about immigration, the subject of his new book. In January he co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which seemed to be in favor of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But earlier this month he said he backed legal residency and not necessarily citizenship. He then seemed to change his mind again, saying he would support a path to citizenship “if it didn’t create an incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally.” Let’s see which route he takes at CPAC.
5. Will Marco Rubio be the star?
Let’s hope he skips the glass of water. Politicos will be keeping a close eye on the Florida senator who has been deemed by many as the new Republican savior and potential 2016er. Can Rubio, a Cuban-American, win over a divided party, Hispanics, and a younger audience? Will Rubio’s immigration rhetoric contrast greatly with Bush’s?
6. Two words: Mitt Romney
In case you didn’t get enough in 2012, the failed Republican presidential candidate will speak at CPAC–and so will his former running mate Rep. Paul Ryan. Romney has largely stayed out of the public eye since his loss, which his fellow GOPers have been hammering him for. The former Massachusetts governor has said in a statement that he hopes to say “thank you to the many friends and supporters who were instrumental in helping my campaign.” Will Romney offer any advice to his party? Will he announce what his future plans are? Will he respond to his 47% videographer?
7. Comic relief: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
Failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Apprentice host and presidential flirt Donald Trump will each give speeches. In fact, the duo has been allotted more time than Rubio and Paul. Palin gets 16 minutes, while Trump will have 14 minutes. That compares to Rubio’s 11 minutes and Paul’s 13 minutes. This is likely being done to help sell tickets and rally their conservative base. Will it work?
8. Will Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell cause a stink?
Just as important as the Republicans who are there are the GOPers who are not. That includes the extremely popular governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. McDonnell, whose name is frequently mentioned in the same sentence as 2016, has spoken at the conference for the past two years. Will either of them be out and about–on their own terms–when CPAC is taking place?
9. What about gay Republicans?
Two prominent gay rights groups in the conservative moment, GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans have once again been barred from attending the annual conference. Have times really changed? Some Republicans, including msnbc conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, have said they won’t attend CPAC unless the groups were invited. Will gay rights be mentioned at all during the conference?
10. Will the next young GOP superstar emerge?
CPAC also has the opportunity to shine the spotlight on lesser-known GOPers. A few young conservatives to watch include: Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, Connecticut State Sen. Art Linares and New York State Rep. Nicole Malliotakis.
11. The eyebrow-raising panels
Every year, CPAC holds a number of controversial panels and this year is no different. Among the offerings: “Should we shoot all the consultants now?” “Is America falling apart?” and “Stop This: Threats, harassment, intimidation, slander & bullying from the Obama Administration.”