WASHINGTON — Less than a year before Republicans cast their first ballots in
presidential primaries, thousands of young conservatives will converge here this
weekend for the Conservative Political Action Conference to hear most candidates
test-drive their 2012 campaign speeches.
Attendance at Marriott Wardman Park Hotel is expected to surpass the record-setting 10,000 people at last year’s session, said Grover Norquist of The American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC.
"That tells me that the results of the November elections were not the high-water mark of the conservative movement, but the beginning of a huge wave," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a potential presidential candidate.
Republicans captured the House of Representatives and sharply narrowed the
Democratic majority in the Senate.
Gingrich expects a conference atmosphere that is "impatient for more change faster, with an absolute dedication to defeating (President) Obama." In addition to Gingrich, other presidential contenders at CPAC will include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Conferees will participate in a CPAC hallmark on Saturday, the presidential straw poll. How well the straw poll translates into support is open to question because most winners fail to grab the party’s nomination. In 2008, the eventual Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, refused to attend the conference.
This year, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who continues to draw national attention and endless speculation, will not participate.
Norquist attributed Palin’s no-show to a scheduling conflict.
Ronald Reagan spoke to about 100 conferees at CPAC’s first conference in 1973. He addressed the conference soon after becoming president in 1981.
"Young people are a vital focus of CPAC. Since they are the next generation of
conservative leadership, they are viewed as critically important at the events,"
said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based strategist and board member of The American Conservative Union.
The meeting is happening as the GOP makes inroads with young voters. Support for
Democrats born between 1981 and 2000 has dropped from 57 percent to 53 percent since the 2008 elections, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. Support for Republicans has increased to 33 percent from 30 percent over the same period.
One snag in the weekend is the participation of GOProud, a conservative gay advocacy group. That’s a problem for some social conservatives, such as the Family Research Council and Liberty University in Virginia. They declined to participate in the weekend because of GOProud’s sponsorship role.
Chris Barron, executive directive of GOProud, downplayed the impact of the group, which was founded two years ago and counts 10,000 members. "By any reasonable stretch CPAC is going to be a highly attended event. Reports of a
family feud or divide are widely overblown," he said.