The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) descended on Maryland's National Harbor this weekend. From Sarah Palin's prime speaking slot to Rand Paul's straw poll win, here are seven takeaways from the 2013 who's-who event in conservative politics:
1. To some conservatives, anyway, Sarah Palin still matters
Since cutting the cord from her years-long flirtation with seeking the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, Sarah Palin has maintained in the conservative movement an on-again-off-again presence that seemed to be altogether waning with Fox News' announcement in January that the former Alaska governor would not be returning as a contributor. Then came the 2013 CPAC lineup.
The conference this year was themed, "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives" - on the face of it an odd venue for the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee whose sensationalistic, polarizing style has been blamed in part for driving a wedge into the Republican Party. But attendees who spoke with CBS News almost universally agreed that Palin belonged.
"Her brand is not as popular anymore," conceded Tufts University student Jacqueline Quander, who calls herself an independent. "But people love her." Penn State student Marty Heckman agreed that thanks to Palin's penchant for controversial statements, like insinuating President Obama "pals around" with domestic terrorists, "public-wise, she's not really appealing to people." But, he added, there remains a place for her at CPAC as well as in the movement: "She has a voice, and she does have good things to say," he said.
Palin's speech on Saturday, during which she went after everyone from President Obama to Michael Bloomberg to Karl Rove - who's taken issue with Palin's involvement in elections past and has recently launched a "super PAC" with the intention of curbing influence from far-right organizations - was met with hearty reception. Her message to Washington - "get over yourself" - offered a humorous reprieve for convention-goers weary from Capitol Hill's unprecedented gridlock.
Arguably the most memorable moment of Palin's speech, though, and a calling card to her signature, in-your-face approach: At one point, she casually pulled out from behind the podium a 7-Eleven Big Gulp, and began slurping away - an homage to the sugary drinks that New York City Mayor Bloomberg tried to ban. Palin assured the wildly applauding crowd: "Bloomberg's not around - we're cool."
2. The Romney grudge isn't eternal
Mitt Romney - the same presidential nominee who Rick Santorum once called "the worst Republican in the country" to face off against President Obama on the issue of health care, and who at least one tea party group deemed the day after his Nov. 6 election loss "a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party" - on Friday addressed CPAC, arguably the most who's-who conservative event of the year.
Romney's speech conceded "mistakes" made in his unsuccessful bid for the White House, and was met with courteous applause. And despite Texas Gov. Rick Perry's assessment at the conference Thursday that Romney lost last fall because he wasn't a true conservative, convention-goers, speakers and VIPs largely offered the former Massachusetts governor a pass, subscribing to the "big tent" ideology of the Republican Party.
"I hope to God he's not the future" of the conservative movement, Andy Brown, from White Bear Lake, Minn., said of Romney. Brown said the nominee "didn't have as much of a spine as I'd like," but added that he deserved his invitation to CPAC: "He's still one of us," he said. "He may not have and share the same values as the majority of us, but he was working towards the same goal as us."
Even Santorum, who in the GOP primary offered social conservatives an alternative to the historically moderate Romney, and was the last real threat standing between him and the nomination, told CBS News that Romney "should have been invited here - I'm glad he was." Santorum, who spoke at the conference ahead of Romney, reasoned, "there are different elements to the conservative movement, and it's important to hear from him, and welcome all those to compete in the arena of ideas."