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At CPAC, Hunger for New Leadership

The grass-roots activists that fuel the Republican Party’s gas tank appeared less divided during the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference than they did in flux as they try to determine which road to take next, and whom to follow.

With bitter 2012 election losses still on their minds, it might be easy to interpret the debates at CPAC as a movement — and, by extension, a political party — torn asunder. But the respectful tone that accompanied panels exploring immigration changes, candidate recruitment and the role of the U.S. in the world, and the equally raucous applause that greeted speeches by varied political figures such as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggest otherwise.

“It’s not fighting, but it’s strong and passionate discussions and I think that it’s great for us. And, not only that, it helps the Republicans to have that passionate discussion,” said Micheline Doan, a 60 year-old CPAC attendee from Vancouver, Wash. “We’re still looking for the one that enlightens us — that lights us up again. I think that’s the fight. Who is going to be the one that’s going to come in and regenerate us like [Ronald] Reagan?”

Clearly, disagreements over the way forward remain to be negotiated. Should conservatives ease up on their opposition to same-sex marriage, as many young activists favor, and as Paul suggested in a speech to CPAC that called for “liberty” in the personal sphere? Should conservatives maintain their Reagan and Bush era commitments to a vigorous international military presence, as many older conservatives believe and as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., signaled he favored in his CPAC address?

But as Doan stated, failing to win the White House last November and the ongoing frustration many conservatives have with House Republicans on Capitol Hill have left the movement’s activists hungering more for new, exciting leadership than it has searching for new principles.

The 40th CPAC featured most of the Republicans considered top-tier 2016 presidential candidates, including House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee.

That does not mean losing the presidential race and dropping congressional seats hasn’t spurred a push to adapt, and in some cases adopt, new positions on key matters of public policy.

Nowhere was that more clear than during a vigorous debate over how conservatives and the GOP should approach the immigration legislation currently under discussion in Congress, and what position they should take on whether to grant a path to legalized status for illegal immigrants who currently reside in the U.S.

On the panel that discussed the topic, divisions over the political need to embrace Hispanics through supporting legalization, and traditional conservative opposition to that stance, were apparent.

Kellen Curry, a 27 year-old African-American conservative activist from Oklahoma, sounded optimistic about the opportunity the Republican Party has to chart a new path forward. But he said the process could be a difficult one, at least until a consensus GOP leader emerges to help bring the party and the conservative movement together. Curry runs the website, whose tagline is “inclusive conservatism.”

“It’s an interesting time in the party. I think we’re going through an evolution and transformation. I think it’s exciting. Where it all ends, I don’t know, but it’s fun to watch,” Cullen said. “Until we actually figure out who’s going to lead the party and what vision they have and then rally around that vision, I think you’re going to have a whole lot of down days.”

Last week’s gathering was held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, concluding on March 16 with the popular presidential straw poll. While conservative activists from around the country spent three days cheering for their favorite CPAC guest speakers and pondering the future of their movement, the political professionals that regularly attend the gathering conducted private meetings and public panels aimed at figuring out how to improve GOP performance in elections.

During one panel focused on recruiting conservative candidates who are also talented politicians capable of wooing voters, political operatives and activists lamented the loss of winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012. There seemed to be at least some agreement that conservatives have to avoid repeating the mistake of supporting poor candidates in GOP primaries just because they are frustrated with the Republican establishment.

Political operatives and longtime activists said they sensed a great deal of frustration with the party among the grass roots, dating back two decades. After a 12-year Republican majority in Congress from 1994 to 2006, which overlapped with a GOP president in the White House from 2001 to 2007 — and now a new GOP House majority that is in its second term, conservatives have grown exasperated by the Republicans’ failure to deliver on their promise to shrink government.

That has had an effect on the candidates that grass-roots activists support in GOP primaries. But just as last year’s election losses have motivated conservatives to search for new ideas and new leaders, the political regulars that are likely to work the key races in 2014 and 2016 are likewise trying to plot a new course on how the GOP and the movement can do a better job of picking their stalwarts.

“There’s a process to all this, and I think that where we are right now is an evolutionary period,” said Pennsylvanian Charlie Gerow, a board member of the American Conservative Union, the organization that sponsors CPAC. “Whenever you lose a national election, that many thought we would win, there’s a lot of soul searching, there’s a lot of frustration that comes to the surface and there’s a lot of retooling that goes on, and that’s what you’re seeing.”

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