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The Conservative Political Action Conference has long been a rite of passage for would-be Republican presidential candidates.
But this year the GOP’s top names will share the spotlight with the newly elected lawmakers who will be hailed at the event as the tea party movement’s success stories. Those House Members and Senators represent the first general-election victories for a political movement that began in the summer of 2009 as the health care reform bill was being debated in Congress.
CPAC organizer David Keene said part of the schedule’s emphasis on freshmen is a result of the tea party movement’s influence at CPAC and a way to look “at some of the results from what happened last year.”
But Keene also said he has long believed one of the goals of the annual meeting, which starts Thursday at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, is to introduce new leaders to the conservative movement.
“It’s not just how they came up but that they’re new ... and very outspoken conservatives,” he said.
“When we find people who are interesting, we try to spotlight them,” he added.
Tea party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson’s speech Thursday will not only be his first address before the large gathering, but it will also mark the first time that the Wisconsin Republican has attended the three-day event.
“The tea party itself has brought new life to [the conservative movement],” Johnson said. “One of my messages is going to be ‘We need more new faces in Washington.’”
“I’ve never been involved in politics,” Johnson said, adding that the health care reform bill is what led him to challenge longtime incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D). “We need serious people to do serious work.”
Freshman GOP lawmakers scheduled to speak include Reps. Allen West (Fla.), Kristi Noem (S.D.), Raul Labrador (Idaho), Joe Walsh (Ill.) and Sean Duffy (Wis.), as well as Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam, who will also speak at the event, said the new class of conservatives deserve to be feted by the movement.
“As a class, they’re really distinguishing themselves. ... They’re demonstrating that they are dedicated to those core principles they articulated on the campaign trail,” the Illinois Republican said.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Roll Call that the focus will be on the newcomers in part because nearly 100 of them came to D.C. as a result of the midterm elections.
“It’s hard not to showcase new faces because there are so many,” he said. “It makes [the conference] more forward-looking and more youthful.”
“If you’re sitting around talking about the good old days, it means you aren’t winning,” he said.
Of course, CPAC will also feature plenty of familiar names: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Sen. John Thune (S.D.), Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) are scheduled to speak.
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.”