CPAC speakers face balancing act between conservative cred, expanding party

(CBS News) The next presidential election is more than three years away, but high-profile auditions for Republican contenders are underway. They're taking place at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference. But two of the GOP's brightest stars are nowhere to be seen.

a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57574471/looking-ahead-some-conservatives-spurn-stale-old-guard-gop/">Looking ahead some conservatives spurn "stale" "old guard" GOP

For speakers at CPAC, it's a tough balancing act. On the one hand they have impress to the nation's most influential conservatives with their conservative credentials, but at the same time, they have to advocate ways to expand the party -- two goals that are often in conflict.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tried to win over the nation's conservative leaders by reminding them of his positions on social issues like abortion. He said, "Science has proven that life begins at conception."

Also, on the topic of same-sex marriage, he said, "Just because I believe that states should be able to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot."

But he did not even mention his signature issue -- comprehensive immigration reform -- a position that's deeply unpopular among conservatives.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., took a very different tack, stressing his libertarian beliefs and his appeal to young voters, saying, "Ask the Facebook generation whether we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug abuse and you will hear a resounding 'no.'"

And he had harsh words for the Republican old guard. He said, "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered."

Speakers will include possible presidential candidates like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. But there will also be plenty of contenders from the past, including Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin.

But some GOP bright lights were not invited, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who upset conservatives for publicly praising the president's response to Hurricane Sandy, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who earned the ire of conservatives by supporting a tax increase.

Rick Davis, who managed John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, says CPAC is like a club and they can invite whomever they want. But added, "I would say if their focus is on the future and winning elections, then they probably ought to look at the leaders of the future, and not be focused so much of the heroes, in their minds, of the past."

One big goal of CPAC is to identify the strongest candidates of 2016, but on Friday it will look more like 2012 with former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan scheduled to speak.

Watch Chip Reid's full "CBS This Morning" report above.

Republicans at CPAC are unified in their message among themselves, but they're not trying to broaden the party, according to chief White House correspondent Major Garrett. He said on "CBS This Morning," "There's a fascination, almost a fetish, about being away from and different from the so-called Republican establishment and conservatives are trying to draw very hard lines and getting those who want their support to walk those lines."

For more on what may be discussed at CPAC, including Sen. Rob Portman's surprising reversal of his position on same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama's recent visit to Capitol Hill and more, watch Garrett's full "CTM" analysis in the video below.

Stunner: Sen. Rob Portman backs same-sex marriage

As for leaving out those who are considered presidential hopefuls for 2016, such as Christie, Garrett said, "One thing that strikes me about this conservative conference is how Washington and Beltway-focused it is. There's a real debate going on in the Republican Party about 2016, is another Washington Republican going to be the standard bearer or will the Republican Party look outside of Washington, the Beltway inner circle, the establishment and to a governor that actually solves and deals with problems? Christie and McDonnell would like to say the party ought to but they don't have a chance at this conference."

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