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At CPAC, Hunger for New Leadership

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Most of the Republicans who are considered top-tier candidates to run for president in 2016 were present at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, including Ryan, whose speech focused on policies touted during his 2012 vice presidential candidacy.

On the panel that discussed the topic, divisions over the political need to embrace Hispanics through supporting legalization, and traditional conservative opposition to that stance, were apparent.

Kellen Curry, a 27 year-old African-American conservative activist from Oklahoma, sounded optimistic about the opportunity the Republican Party has to chart a new path forward. But he said the process could be a difficult one, at least until a consensus GOP leader emerges to help bring the party and the conservative movement together. Curry runs the website MillennialElephants.com, whose tagline is “inclusive conservatism.”

“It’s an interesting time in the party. I think we’re going through an evolution and transformation. I think it’s exciting. Where it all ends, I don’t know, but it’s fun to watch,” Cullen said. “Until we actually figure out who’s going to lead the party and what vision they have and then rally around that vision, I think you’re going to have a whole lot of down days.”

Last week’s gathering was held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, concluding on March 16 with the popular presidential straw poll. While conservative activists from around the country spent three days cheering for their favorite CPAC guest speakers and pondering the future of their movement, the political professionals that regularly attend the gathering conducted private meetings and public panels aimed at figuring out how to improve GOP performance in elections.

During one panel focused on recruiting conservative candidates who are also talented politicians capable of wooing voters, political operatives and activists lamented the loss of winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012. There seemed to be at least some agreement that conservatives have to avoid repeating the mistake of supporting poor candidates in GOP primaries just because they are frustrated with the Republican establishment.

Political operatives and longtime activists said they sensed a great deal of frustration with the party among the grass roots, dating back two decades. After a 12-year Republican majority in Congress from 1994 to 2006, which overlapped with a GOP president in the White House from 2001 to 2007 — and now a new GOP House majority that is in its second term, conservatives have grown exasperated by the Republicans’ failure to deliver on their promise to shrink government.

That has had an effect on the candidates that grass-roots activists support in GOP primaries. But just as last year’s election losses have motivated conservatives to search for new ideas and new leaders, the political regulars that are likely to work the key races in 2014 and 2016 are likewise trying to plot a new course on how the GOP and the movement can do a better job of picking their stalwarts.

“There’s a process to all this, and I think that where we are right now is an evolutionary period,” said Pennsylvanian Charlie Gerow, a board member of the American Conservative Union, the organization that sponsors CPAC. “Whenever you lose a national election, that many thought we would win, there’s a lot of soul searching, there’s a lot of frustration that comes to the surface and there’s a lot of retooling that goes on, and that’s what you’re seeing.”

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