The conclave, held by the American Conservative Union, is typically at its least consequential four years before the next presidential campaign. But this year it has taken on more significance as Republicans undertake examinations of how to improve their prospects in 2014 and 2016 and aactivists seek new reasons for optimism at the start of President Barack Obama’s second term.
Here’s what some of the top speakers have said:
The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate has maintained a low profile. She’s expected to play a limited role in the future of the GOP but shared several recommendations Saturday.
Instead of focusing on rebuilding the Republican Party, she said that party leaders should focus on rebuilding the middle class. Still, her speech consisted mostly of one-liners slamming the president. Taking a shot at Obama’s call for universal background checks on gun owners, she said, “Dandy idea, Mr. President — should have started with yours."
Palin’s appearances no longer inspire speculation about her presidential aspirations, but her reception at CPAC underscored her enduring popularity with the right. “We must leave no American behind," she said in a populist speech that electrified the crowd. “And we must share our powerful message of freedom and liberty to all citizens — even those who may disagree on some issues."
Marco Rubio and Rand Paul
The two top 2016 White House hopefuls made a conspicuous effort to distance themselves from the past two GOP presidential nominees.
On Thursday, Rubio and Paul offered sharp, and only slightly veiled, critiques of Mitt Romney and John McCain, the two most recent men to carry the party standard in presidential elections.
“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," Paul said. “I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?" And Paul didn’t, though the reference was clear, after McCain recently labeled Paul and other members of the new generation of conservative Republicans “wacko birds."
Speaking to the same crowd earlier, Rubio sought to cast himself as the anti-Romney, attacking some of Romney’s most controversial statements from the campaign, in which the former governor, in a surreptitiously recorded video, dismissed 47 percent of American voters as victims.
“Our people have not changed," Rubio said. “The vast majority of the American people are hardworking taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, they pay their mortgage on time, they volunteer in their community. This is where the vast majority of the American people are. What’s changed is the world around us."
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan
For his part, the 2012 presidential nominee on Friday received standing ovations from the audience as he expressed optimism about the Republican Party’s future and vowed to work with conservatives to achieve “larger victories."
“Like you, I believe that a conservative vision can attract a majority of Americans," Romney said. He called on Republicans especially to heed the GOP leaders in the “blue and purple states. ... These are the people we’ve got to listen to and make sure their message is heard loud and clear."
Romney also gave a shout-out to his 2012 running mate, hailing “the clear and convincing voice of my friend Paul Ryan." Earlier Friday, Ryan, R-Wis., delivered a policy-laden speech, one week after releasing the latest version of his House budget. Ryan argued that the government’s debt is a sign that it is doing too much.
“We don’t see the debt as an excuse to cut with abandon, to shirk our obligations," Ryan said. “We see it as an opportunity to reform government, to make it cleaner and more effective. That’s what conservatives stand for."
Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush
On the same day that Palin spoke, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a starkly different tone, saying the party needs to stop being defined by its opposition to Obama. Echoing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who the night before said the GOP needs to stop being viewed as anti-everything, Gingrich said, “We are not the anti-Obama movement."
Gingrich also decried partisan politics. “The Republican establishment is just plain wrong. ... You’re going to hear a false attack that we don’t need new ideas," he said. “I’d like to draw a distinction. We don’t need new principles."
Said Bush, “I’m here to tell you there is no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American, and we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance. It’s our heritage."
Gingrich was followed by Rep. Michele Bachmann, who characterized conservatives as a “growing movement of people who care about all Americans." She cited as evidence their support for $2-a-gallon gasoline and for preserving Second Amendment rights for women.
On Thursday, Donald Trump combined dire predictions about the GOP’s future with boasts of his own career. “The Republican Party is in serious trouble," Trump said. He warned that it could not win by changing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “for the worse." He declared that if 11 million illegal immigrants are given legal status, “every one ... will be voting Democratic."
CPAC wrapped up its conference with remarks Saturday night from freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose hard-charging ways have rankled even some Republicans.