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CPAC 2012: The Ever-Ready Bunny of Conservative Conferences…on Steroids

The 38th annual CPAC – the Conservative Political Action Conference – was the event’s largest and best…ever.

Over 11,000 attendees, and lots and lots of young people. The movement is strong and growing…and one big reason is Ron Paul. They say the world belongs to those who show up, and Ron Paul’s supporters showed up. Many of them college-age students. And for the second year in a row, they proved decisive in handing Dr. Paul a victory in CPAC’s annual presidential straw poll.

But Dr. Paul’s support is hardly universal. Mixed in with the thunderous applause when it was announced he had won the much-anticipated straw poll were a significant number of boo’s. Indeed, shortly after the results were revealed, it was announced that Young Americans for Freedom, “the nation’s oldest, largest and most active conservative/libertarian youth organization,” had kicked Dr. Paul off its National Advisory Board because of his what they called “his delusional and disturbing alliance with the fringe Anti-War movement.”

CPAC is nothing without a little controversy and a little divisiveness. And it’s often healthy.

Indeed, last year there was considerable debate as to whether or not tea partiers should even attend CPAC. Some in the tea party movement believe they need to sever all ties with the “old guard” rather than working with and learning from those with many years experience in the trenches. But that kerfuffle is now dead and buried. When one speaker asked the audience this year how many were tea partiers, almost every hand went up!

Another brouhaha that re-erupted this year was the decision to allow GOProud, an organization of gay conservatives, to have a booth in the exhibit hall of over 100 vendors. While Sen. Jim DeMint and the Heritage Foundation opted to boycott CPAC over GOProud’s inclusion, prominent social conservatives such as Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Ann Coulter and Sharron Angle defended the group’s participation.

And in a little bit of news, before CPAC was over GOProud’s co-founder and chairman, Chris Barron, asked me to join FOX News contributor Margaret Hoover, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Andrew Breitbart of BigGovernment.com on their National Advisory Council and I agreed proudly and without reservation. You build governing majorities by addition of like-minded, not identically-minded, individuals…not subtraction.

That said, this year’s CPAC confirmed a significant, and also controversial, shift in the movement philosophically. For the 90s and much of the 2000s, CPAC was generally dominated by social conservatives. And while the so-called “religious right” still occupies a major seat at the table, it no longer is seated at the head of the table. Again, thanks in large part to the Ron Paul, youth and tea party movements, CPAC has moved decidedly toward the libertarian/fiscal conservative side of philosophical spectrum.

Indeed, in addition to Ron Paul coming in first in the CPAC straw poll, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a well-know libertarian-conservative, came in third (Mitt Romney came in second). Do I think either will actually win the GOP prez nomination? No. But they will bring issues to the table that otherwise would be swept under the rug, and the eventual winner is going to have to appeal to this growing segment of the conservative movement in much the same way candidates before them had to appeal to social conservatives two decades ago.

This year’s CPAC marked another milestone in the event’s history. After 27 years at the helm of the American Conservative Union (ACU), Chairman David Keene is stepping down in order to take over as President of the National Rifle Association later this spring. So this was Keene’s swan song…and what an appropriate send-off it was. Biggest and best. Nice way to go out on top.

Keene’s successor is Al Cardenas….a Cuban refugee and someone known very well within the conservative movement. And both Chairman Cardenas and President-elect Keene have said they’ll come to Vegas in June as speakers at our 4th Annual Conservative Leadership Conference. Look for additional details in the coming days and weeks. Should be OUR biggest and best conference, as well.

I could go on and on about how great so many of the speakers were – especially Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Ron Paul, Herman Cain (“Stupid people are ruining America.”), Ann Coulter (“We already have a path to citizenship. It’s called LEGAL immigration.”), Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (“Isolationism is a luxury we cannot afford.”). But the highlight of a weekend of highlights was the keynote address delivered by freshman Republican Congressman LTC (R) Allen West of Florida.

I believe Col. West’s “The Time is Now” speech at the 2011 CPAC could well go down in history right up there with Ronald Reagan’s 1975 “Pale Pastel” CPAC speech. It was that good…delivered flawlessly. Haven’t gotten so much exercise standing up and sitting down from one standing O to the next in many a year.

And recall, by the way, that six years after Reagan delivered his memorable CPAC speech in 1975, he was living in the White House. If Barack Obama wins a second term (God forbid), it is anything but out of the question that Allen West could be sitting in the Oval Office in 2017. Don’t…be…surprised.

Speaking of surprises, Donald Trump was perhaps the biggest and most entertaining of surprise speakers at CPAC this year.

While it’s clear conservatives are more than a little suspicious of Trump’s largely unknown philosophical leanings, there is no question that celebrity sells in American culture, and the possibility that Trump might actually run for president stirred up quite a buzz at this year’s conference. At the very least, conservatives now know, thanks to The Donald’s speech, the guy would spend months pounding Barack Obama, so I suspect he’ll be a welcome addition to the GOP field by many in the grassroots.

The biggest losers by virtue of blowing off CPAC this year were Sen. Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin. DeMint joined the anti-gay boycott of GOProud, and Palin is apparently still mad at David Keene for suggesting in an interview back in the spring of 2009 that she stop whining about liberal media bias. Neither was an acceptable excuse to bypass the most important annual meet-up of movement conservatives, and both look petty and silly for doing so…especially since their absence took absolutely nothing away from the conference.

The bottom line: If you missed this year’s CPAC, you really missed something special, maybe even historic. Don’t miss out next year. Reading tweets, blogs and Muth’s Truths are nothing compared to actually being there!