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CPAC kicks off as conservatives mull future

This post was updated at 1:59 p.m. ET

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of the conservative movement's brightest stars, kicked off on Thursday at a deciding moment for American conservatives and the Republican Party: as some counsel the GOP to tack to the center in the wake of a disappointing 2012 electoral defeat, other elements of the conservative base have warned that nothing will invite irrelevance more quickly than a dilution of principle.

That schism was on display on the very first morning of the conference, as a trio of speakers delivered defiantly conservative speeches but at times nodded obliquely to the political problems confronting the conservative movement.

The first speaker, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, perfectly embodies the dispute vexing the GOP. The likely Republican nominee in Virginia's 2013 gubernatorial race, Cuccinelli is beloved by the base for his crusades against the Obama administration on healthcare and environmental regulation, but some more pragmatic conservatives fear he may be too far-right to win the governor's mansion in a swing state.

He began with the red meat, decrying "bureaucrats" who are "unbridled in their attempts" to extend the reach of the state into the daily lives of Americans.

"Our nation stands at a threshold," he warned. "What type of country, what type of people do we want to be?"

Noting that he was the first state attorney general to sue to halt the implementation of Obamacare and recalling his successful stand against an EPA rule that he said would classify rainwater as a pollutant, Cuccinelli explained, "Democrats and their liberal allies...have labeled me as someone who must be defeated at all costs."

"They will stop at nothing to make sure that I am not elected Virginia's next governor because I have dared to defend our most sacred principles rather than bow to their vision for America's future."

But despite his chest-beating about his conservative bona-fides, Cuccinelli sounded very much like someone seeking statewide office in a competitive state, sounding a few surprising notes that could earn him a second look from swing-voters in Virginia.

He called for tax reform that creates a simpler, more "fair" code by eliminating loopholes for the "well-connected," echoing language President Obama has used in similar calls for a tax code overhaul.

He also delivered a passionate call for criminal justice reform, decrying a system that simply locks up offenders and throws away the key. "If we really believe that nobody is beyond redemption," Cuccinelli said, "we need to stop throwing away the key. Conservatives should lead the campaign to change the culture of corrections in America."

But if Cuccinelli's speech marked a move to the center in anticipation of his race, the next speaker, former Florida Rep. Allen West, sounded very much a man freed from the stagecraft of campaigning, delivering a scalding rant against Mr. Obama and his progressive allies.

"Last November we did take one on the jaw," West admitted. "But this not defined by the punches that we take. We're defined by how quickly we pull ourselves off the mat."

"There's no shortage of people telling us what conservatism can't do," he said, labeling suggestions that conservatives must moderate "a bunch of malarkey"

"A bended knee is not, nor shall it ever be, a conservative tradition," he thundered.

"We cannot just give lip service to our principles," he warned, urging attendees to "pick up the torch and carry conservatism, high and proud, into the 21st century."

"I'm tired of these insufferable lectures of progressivism," West said, asserting that charitable giving among conservatives is greater than among progressives. "The only charity a progressive sends is a smug sermon on 'fair share' and what fairness is."

West, a prominent black conservative, also declared that "there is nothing on this green earth that a liberal progressive fears more than a black American who wants a better life and a smaller government."

Asked about that remark after his speech, West explained that he and other black conservatives are frequently targeted as outcasts because of their political beliefs. "Being a black conservative is like being in a combat zone surrounded by a bunch of Taliban," he said.

Despite the doldrums of the conservative movement, West promised, it's always darkest before the dawn: "When Barack Obama packs his bags and beats a hasty retreat back to Chicago, we will persevere."

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., took to the lectern after West to lament "out of control" federal spending. He told the audience that he recently left a markup hearing for "[Senate Banking Committee chairman] Patty Murray's budget," ceding full ownership of that plan to Senate Democrats making clear that Republicans are a long way from signing on.

Toomey said he remains "haunted by the experience of the 2012 campaign" and the frequent warning from Mr. Obama that we cannot give the car keys back to the Republicans who drove us into the ditch.

"It was the left that got us into this mess," Toomey declared, his voice sharp with incredulity. The problem, he said, was that Republicans "never had an alternative compelling narrative that explained that."

"We can't let that happen in this fight over the level of government spending," he warned. "The premise from the left is clear: they think that economic growth depends on a huge, bloated federal government."

"That's ridiculous," Toomey argued. "John Maynard Keynes died a long time ago, I wish the man could just rest in peace. Let's be done with this."

Upcoming speakers at the conference, which proceeds through Saturday, include former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, billionaire Donald Trump, and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

CBS News' Tolleah Price contributed to this report.

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