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Controversies Over CPAC Reflect GOP's Woes


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Every year at this time, some of the biggest stars and activists of the conservative movement gather in the Washington, D.C. area. The big event is called the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. There are speakers, panel discussions, movie screenings and lots of book signings. But this year's event follows big disappointments in last year's election and faces big questions about the future given the nation's emerging demographics.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: What a difference a year makes. At the 2012 CPAC gathering in Washington, the more than 10,000 conservative activists in attendance couldn't wait for the November election.


MITT ROMNEY: Of course we can defeat Barack Obama. That's the easy part. Believe me, November 6 will be the easiest day our next president is going to face.

GONYEA: That, of course, was Mitt Romney. Speaker after speaker last year sounded a similar optimism. There was former presidential candidate Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: We're going to have an absolutely phenomenal, successful year this November. Won't we?


GONYEA: And Newt Gingrich.

NEWT GINGRICH: The number one theme of the fall campaign will be a paycheck president versus a food stamp president. I believe we will win that fight by a huge margin.

GONYEA: That didn't happen, nor did the other thing seen as a sure bet by CPAC attendees last year - a GOP takeover of the U.S. Senate.

So now comes CPAC 2013. Al Cardenas is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the event.

AL CARDENAS: The politics is all about the ups and downs, but it's almost more important to have these conferences when you haven't had a good year than when you have a good year.

GONYEA: Registrations for CPAC 2013 have topped last year's record. And Cardenas says it's important to take stock. He did so by going back and re-reading the dozen speeches Ronald Reagan delivered to the conference over the years. He said advice Reagan offered in the very difficult post-Watergate year of 1975 stands out.

CARDENAS: One, conservatives will never compromise their principles because that's the surest way to lose. And number two, you can't just be a conservative, you've got to be eloquent and a good candidate.

GONYEA: Cardenas says conservatives need to be aware of demographic changes, which show minority voters identifying with Democrats even as their share of the vote grows. Then there are young voters, some of whom see Republicans and conservatives as out of step on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Dennis Lennox is a 28-year-old conservative Republican activist from Michigan who attends CPAC every year.

DENNIS LENNOX: Well, I think conservatives - I hate to admit it - I think we've lost the culture wars.

GONYEA: Lennox says he's concerned that the lessons of the past two elections aren't sinking in.

LENNOX: If you don't believe in something and you're running in a state that has said we accept non-traditional marriage, how do you address that as a conservative?

GONYEA: There are dozens of speakers and panelists under age 40 being showcased this year. But the gay conservative organization GOProud was rejected as a potential sponsor of the conference again this year.

The lineup of speakers has also prompted controversy. New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie was not invited, a move widely interpreted to be due to his pre-election hugging of the president as Obama toured Hurricane Sandy devastation.

CPAC's Cardenas insists Christie is not being punished, saying there are only so many speaking slots. Another GOP strategist, Hogan Gidley, who's worked for the Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee presidential campaigns, thinks it's a mistake.

HOGAN GIDLEY: You're inviting someone like Donald Trump. You're ignoring someone like Chris Christie. But you're inviting the author of Obamacare in Mitt Romney. It doesn't quite match up.

GONYEA: The challenge for CPAC this year will be defining a way forward in the absence of a unifying figure, someone who might someday bring together evangelicals and libertarians, defense hawks and deficit hawks, and all their competing visions of conservatism.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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