This past weekend, the American Conservative Union (CPU) held its 40th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). CPU claims to be “the oldest and largest grassroots conservative in the nation” . Furthermore, CPAC, first held in 1973, brings together conservative leaders and activists to educate, energize, and set forth the conservative agenda each year . This year’s conference proved to be as colorful and energetic as ever, but its message lack cohesion as much as Romney’s Presidential campaign. CPAC provided the perfect post-loss opportunity for conservatives to promote their message and jump into the limelight, and a few of the speakers left many conservatives and liberals, especially those who are already thinking about 2016, curious about their political future.
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (KY) brought the energy this year. During his afternoon speech, there was standing-room-only, and the crowd waved ‘Stand with Rand’ flags in support of Paul’s filibuster earlier this month. He challenged the party by calling for major change during his speech. With twenty-five percent of the vote, Paul was the winner of the CPAC 2016 presidential straw poll, which listed twenty-three of the most prominent Republicans . However, the results do not hold too much weight, especially this far away from the 2016 election. U.S. Representative Ron Paul (TX), Rand’s father, won the CPAC straw poll in 2010 and 2011 by large margins.
Coming second in the straw poll, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (FL) also gained a lot of attention with his speech. In contrast to Paul’s message, Rubio declared the party’s principles sound; he reaffirmed his support for conservative positions, such as “traditional” marriage and opposition to abortion . Rubio’s speech was received well, but not quite as enthusiastically as Paul’s speech. Rubio’s support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants may have conservatives hesitant to give their full support to him. Accordingly, Rubio did not mention immigration reform, currently his main legislation project, during his speech.
Dr. Ben Carson, probably the most unknown keynote speaker at CPAC, is another key Republican player to watch. Carson is the famous John Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon who largely gained the media’s attention earlier this month when he strongly criticized progressive taxation and many provisions within Obamacare at the National Prayer Breakfast . President Obama was sitting just feet away from Carson during the speech. At CPAC, Carson announced his near retirement from medicine and suggested that politics may be in his future. During his speech, he hinted at a possible White House bid with the hypothetical: “What if you magically put me in the White House?’ . Carson finished seventh in the straw poll.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush continued his resurgence back into the political spotlight during CPAC. Taking a break from the publicity tour of his book, Immigration Wars, Bush was invited to give the conference’s marquee speech in which he urged the party to be more inclusive . During a time of rebranding for the party, however, there appears to be more enthusiasm for the younger, upcoming GOP stars. Bush’s speech was reported to fall flat compared to Paul’s and Rubio’s, and he interestingly opted out of being included in the CPAC presidential straw poll, even though he has fueled speculation recently that he is interested in a 2016 bid .
This year’s CPAC may have been a preview of who will be seen in the next GOP presidential primaries. Paul, Rubio, and Bush are speculated to be strong presidential contenders, and Carson would definitely be a change of pace for the party. It is important to note that Governor Bob McDonnell (VA) and Governor Chris Christie (NJ), two other big GOP stars, were not invited to give keynote speeches at the event. Although Christie did not attend CPAC, he did finish fourth in the straw poll, and both governors are also said to be strong contenders if they decide to run in 2016. Yet, it is just 2013. Many things can happen within the next three years, but the GOP seems to have a large pool of potential from which to choose for the 2016 presidential election.
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