CPAC 2011 (So Far…)

It’s been an interesting CPAC this year. Before the conference even started it was embroiled in controversy over the participation of gay conservative group GOProud. Several organizations pulled out of the conference, but few of them were regular participants anyway. The most high profile and only real loss was The Heritage Foundation. Rumors are that their refusal to participate this year was not over GOProud, but due to a financial dispute with the American Conservative Union—the organization behind CPAC. Regardless of the dispute before then conference, GOProud seems to be getting a good reception from attendees.

The big surprise yesterday was Donald Trump. Trump showed up yesterday afternoon to a fairly responsive crowd, but quickly digressed into a fight over Ron Paul with a heckler. Considering the room was stacked with Paulie’s waiting to hear Rand Paul, that was NOT a smart move. No one seems to be taking Trump for President seriously. Rand Paul did a really good job. He seems to have more charisma than his father.

Speaking of presidential candidates, Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, looks like he’s gearing up for a run. Johnson has a booth and professional campaign consultants wandering around. He actually gave a good speech yesterday, but is still considered a long, long, long shot candidate. Johnson’s biggest obstacle is his drug policy (he supports the legalization of marijuana) and he will have a hard time getting traditional Republican primary voters to buy into him because of it.

Mitt Romney spoke earlier today and got a very tepid response from the crowd. The ballroom was only three quarters of the way full, and he largely skipped over the health care issue which did not go unnoticed. The fake Sarah Palin was a bigger hit than Mitt.

John Thune has been considered a possible candidate for 2012 in some circles, and had a speaking spot this afternoon. He was good, but not great in both content and delivery. I think he’ll wait until 2016 to throw his name in the hat.

Former Governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty spoke this afternoon as well. He was long on red meat and short on specifics. I don’t really know that he lost any support, but probably didn’t gain much either.

On the conference in general, there seems to be a weaker line-up of speakers this year. Noticeably absent are Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee and Jim DeMint. The energy seems a little down compared to last year, and I think it is due to the lack of enthusiasm with our current crop of presidential candidates. I expect Ron Paul to win the straw poll again this year—his supporters are, if nothing else, well organized.

I’ve been coming to CPAC since 2004, and looking around this year I’m amazed at how libertarian this conference has become. When I first started coming, the conference has always been fiscally conservative, but social issues were also prominently featured. This year, there are a few panels discussing social issues (Traditional Marriage, DADT) but they’re not getting as much attendance or support as in the past. The easy acceptance of GOProud is also an example of how the attitude has changed. The younger generation of conservatives appears to have more of an libertarian, anti-government bent.

I’m looking forward to seeing Haley Barbour tomorrow morning, and to hearing how Mitch Daniels does later tonight. There’s a lot of buzz about both men, and I think their performance here could make or break their momentum.

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