And while possible presidential contenders may not be the main event, several people thought to be considering a run will take the stage, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Noticeably absent from the speaker list is former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who told reporters last week that schedule conflicts would prevent her from attending CPAC.
CPAC has long had its share of controversies, but complaints from conservatives have been particularly pointed this year and several standard-bearers of the movement won’t attend.
The decision by CPAC organizers to include GOProud — an organization of gay conservative Republicans — has outraged social conservatives, who view the group’s participation as an implicit acceptance of the rights of gay Americans.
Keene has stood his ground against some Christian leaders who have objected, and groups such as Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council have decided not to attend.
CPAC’s inclusion of Suhail Khan, a Muslim conservative involved with the Conservative Inclusion Coalition, has also drawn criticism.
Conservative activists such as David Horowitz have accused Khan of attempting to undermine the nation’s judicial system by promoting Sharia law, a conservative Muslim approach to legal and ethical issues. But while his involvement in the conference may upset some conservatives, Horowitz and other critics are scheduled to participate.
Norquist, who has participated in CPAC for decades, dismissed the complaints.
“Loser people and loser organizations that haven’t done any work all year try to get headlines so they can whine about CPAC. They can get a little press. That happens all the time,” he said.
Keene takes criticisms from other conservatives in stride, saying as the chief organizer of the meeting part of his job is to be a “conservative piñata” in the runup to the meeting. Keene brushes off the complaints, saying part of his goal has been “to reflect and illustrate over the years the wide diversity of the movement.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.