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With 2016 on horizon, US conservatives rally at CPAC

by Pete Simmonds (2018-07-29)

Thousands of American conservatives will gather just outside Washington beginning Thursday with a thinly-veiled mission: vet the Republican politicians who might soon announce bids for the White House.

This week's annual CPAC convention will see the right wing rallying around core principles it hopes will shape the 2016 presidential election.

But it is the politicians themselves -- and how they will be received by the faithful -- that will take the spotlight.

Senator Ted Cruz is one of the scheduled speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference National Harbor, Maryland from Thursday ©Mandel Ngan (AFP/File)

The Conservative Political Action Conference is hard to put a label on. But it is part Comic-Con industry trade show, and part Daytona 500, but with the eccentricity and creative ambition of experimental event Burning Man.

While it appeals to young ideological conservatives converging on Washington in the heart of winter -- the Potomac River, adjacent to the event's National Harbor setting in Maryland, is nearly frozen over -- CPAC attracts seasoned Republican A-listers who are virtually assured of a warm reception.

Scheduled speakers include former Florida governor Jeb Bush, son and brother of two presidents, as well as Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, all of whom have made no secret of their White House interests.

Also committed are former Texas governor Rick Perry, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential nominee and ever-present conservative provocateur who has toyed this year with a potential White House run, is a regular at CPAC, where she has taken pot shots at "Obamacare" and the policies of potential Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Real estate mogul Donald Trump, ever the political flirt, will be on hand too.

- 'Conservative policies matter' -

The GOP faithful will have closer access to their heroes this week compared with last year, as organizers promise a more intimate stage setting and Q&A sessions with headliners like Bush.

"We have to be able to reach (regular Americans) where they are and explain to them why conservative policies matter," Matt Schlapp, who heads the American Conservative Union (ACU) which hosts CPAC, said on its website.

"In the last presidential campaign, that connection did not happen," he added, in a not-so-veiled dig at 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

"They want a strong conservative who can convince people that conservative ideas will fix these problems that the country faces."

Several potential candidates are expected to host meet-and-greets, part of an effort to make the case that their policies shine most brightly.

Along with the headliners, CPAC has lined up breakout sessions, with names like "Can Islam and Democracy Co-exist?" and "Lies Told To You By Liberals."

And a straw poll will see CPAC attendees pick their 2016 presidential favorite. Paul won last year with 31 percent of the vote, trouncing second-place finisher Cruz.

The lawmakers' appearances may be brief: Congress is currently playing political chicken over President Barack Obama's immigration reform plan and the funding of the Department of Homeland Security.

The two Republicans who control Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, are seeking a way out of the impasse by Friday, and are unlikely to appear at CPAC.

Conservative groups often highlight family values at CPAC, including traditional marriage, and gay Republicans have not been particularly welcome.

But inclusion-focused organizers made a point this year of burying that tradition.

ACU announced Monday that the head of the Log Horizon (Dub) kissanime Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, will appear on a panel Saturday addressing aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry speaks at the American Principles Projects Red, White and Blue Gala at the Mayflower Hotel, February 5, 2015 in Washington, DC ©Mark Wilson (Getty Images/AFP/File)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, DC, December 1, 2014 ©Jim Watson (AFP/File)