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For Some Conservatives, It's Homecoming Week

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., last year.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., last year.

The American conservative movement has its homecoming this week: the Conservative Political Action Conference, where everyone from politicians to peddlers is out to inspire the faithful.

Last year, one of the headline speakers was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who harked back to the second-ever CPAC in 1975, when Ronald Reagan laid out a vision for a conservative Republican Party.

She invoked his image of a banner of bold colors, not pale pastels.

"And ever since then, CPAC has been the rally for conservative action, and that's why I am glad to be here today with all of you conservative activists," she said.

Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which puts on CPAC, said the group had trouble meeting demand last year at a Washington convention hotel.

"Only about half of the people who wanted to watch the more popular speakers in the main ballroom were actually able to get in," he says.

This year's conference is in a new, bigger hotel down the Potomac River in Maryland. Despite last November's depressing election returns, Cardenas says that CPAC attendance will barely dip.

Nearly 10,000 people are expected, including more than 2,000 carrying media credentials, in the three-day event that starts Thursday.

Cardenas says more than half of the early registrants are under 25.

The run-up to CPAC is often marked by controversy about who's invited and who's not. Many of last year's presidential primary candidates will be there this week. So will Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee.

Cardenas notes the agenda is rich in names that are being bandied about for next time.

"Just about everyone who may be a potential candidate for president in 2016 will be there in attendance," he says. The list includes Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and others.

But not New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. There's still conservative anger at the way he embraced President Obama — figuratively and literally — after Superstorm Sandy smashed the Jersey Shore just two weeks out from Election Day.

Also on the not-invited list: GOProud, a conservative gay-rights organization that had formerly been a CPAC cosponsor.

Cardenas says people sometimes say CPAC should have a welcoming, big-tent approach. But "that's the mission statement for the Republican Party," he says.

He says it's not CPAC's job to be inclusive if its board votes not to, as this board did with GOProud.

"Our mission is to enrich intellectually the conservative movement and to be persuasive," he says.

Jimmy LaSalvia, GOProud's director and a cofounder, isn't persuaded.

"For two years we were under attack from people who wanted us out of CPAC simply because we're gay," he says.

If the conservative movement wants to win, he says, it has to learn to reach out.

"I don't know if establishment leaders in Washington are finished losing yet," LaSalvia says.

This cloistered feeling is reflected in the funding behind CPAC. The list of sponsors and cosponsors is a long one. But it's almost entirely activists and consultants within the conservative movement: the National Rifle Association, Tea Party Patriots, the Heritage Foundation and so on.

"Any corporate sponsors who appear as sponsors, it's because they're promoting a particular point of view," Cardenas says.

And that point of view typically matches CPAC's bold conservative colors — and not pale, compromising pastels.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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