Can CPAC Conservatives Come Together?

(CBS/Stephanie Condon)
CPAC Convention, Washington -- Conservatives are chomping at the bit, ready for the fall midterm elections.

That much is clear at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, where conservatives of every stripe appeared united in their opposition to President Obama and giddy with optimism at the chance to reclaim political dominance.

"It's a remarkable time to be an American," former Vice President Dick Cheney said Thursday, "a remarkable time to be a conservative."

It is also abundantly clear at CPAC, however, that the term "conservative" covers a broad swath. Enclosed in a Marriott basement, dozens of "conservative" exhibitors compete for the attention of conference goers with candy and swag. Yet as the group the National Organization for Marriage passes out bumper stickers that read, "Don't mess with marriage," its representatives must literally look the other way to ignore a neighboring booth belonging to GOProud, which represents gay conservatives and their allies. There are booths belonging to groups interested in personal liberty, like the Poker Players Alliance (with the slogan "Ante up for personal responsibility") and groups with moral agendas like Students for Life of America.

Whether these groups can coalesce around a series of candidates to usher in a new Republican majority is the unanswered question. Conservatives have made numerous attempts over the past year at defining conservatism, from the recently signed Mt. Vernon Statement to the failed Republican purity test. While no particular platform or manifesto may be able to encompass every facet of conservatism found at CPAC, the attendees here seem convinced they can stay unified in their opposition to "big government," to the president and his economic policies.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in a recent op-ed, "One of the keys to CPAC, as to the 'tea party' movement, is its decentralized, self-organized nature. It is a gathering of activists not an organization of activists (the latter may be impossible)." 

It may be next to impossible to bring together the man in the T-shirt that reads, "COPS say legalize pot" with the white-haired woman in a red blazer and an "I vote whole life" sticker -- but conservative leaders seem intent on trying. And perhaps with good reason: The wave of political disaffection spurring the "tea partiers" is not just an anti-Democratic sentiment, but an anti-incumbent one, even bringing tea party challengers against Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the original "tea partier."

(CBS/Stephanie Condon)
With conservative votes at play this year, established groups like Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks are embracing more fringe, issue-based groups like the Poker Players Alliance. While the group may not fit in with the party's socially conservative element, its 1.2 million swing voter supporters are hard to ignore.

Skepticism of big government has drawn some unlikely allies to the Poker Players Alliance, said Richard Muny, the Kentucky state director for the group.

"There are a lot of people who oppose a small group of social conservatives who'd like to censor the Internet," he said. "A lot of conservatives are outraged about that, so they're more on our side than their side."

GOProud also seems like an unlikely group at CPAC, but the group has had a welcome reception from the American Conservative Union, the group hosting CPAC, as well as anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, said Chris Barron, the chair of the board of Directors from GOProud. The group has also heard from a few underdog candidates who, inspired by Massachusetts' new senator Scott Brown, are venturing into uncharted waters for the GOP – namely, Rep. Patrick Kennedy's now open seat in Rhode Island and a challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in California.

Advocating on behalf of gays and lesbians – including calling for an end to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military – seems like clearly Democratic territory. Yet Barron said its position on that issue fits squarely into the conservative narrative.

"Dick Cheney supports repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell," he said. "There are very few people who have more credibility when it comes to issues of national security. That may not make the Tony Perkinses of the world happy, but the fact is I trust Dick Cheney on national security a lot more than I trust Tony Perkins [president of the Family Research Council]."

It isn't making the Concerned Women for America happy either. A few rows down from GOProud, the socially conservative group passed out "Real Men Marry Women" bumper stickers.

"This is not the time to put undue stress on our military and their families," Shari Randall, the legislative director for CWA, said with respect to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Still, she said, there are areas of commonality, particularly when it comes to taxes.

"People are struggling right now," she said.

(CBS/Stephanie Condon)
People are struggling enough and sufficiently dissatisfied with the president, for the conservative movement's most high profile leaders to proclaim with confidence that Mr. Obama will be voted out of office in 2012.

While there may be no one single manifesto or platform that can claim to represent every conservative, there are just two mascots at CPAC, courtesy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's group American Solutions for Winning the Future: The American Solutions Eagle and the Obama Job Creation Fail Whale.

More Coverage from CPAC:

Gingrich: GOP Must Not Reject Bipartisanship
Ann Coulter: Sarah Palin's Created More Jobs Than Obama
Breitbart: Conservatives to Go "On Offense" Against Media, Professors
Tim Pawlenty: Let's Get the 9-Iron, Like Tiger Woods' Wife
Obama Teleprompter Jokes a CPAC Favorite
Michele Bachmann: "Miss Me Yet?" Billboard is "Innovative" Political Message
See all CBSNews.com CPAC Coverage

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