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Top Conservative Event Opens With Big Names, Red Meat And Fun

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Thursday.
Cliff Owen
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Thursday.

Star Wars storm troopers in full regalia protesting "oppressive economic policies."

A smiling, larger-than life Sarah Palin touting her latest cable television show, Amazing America.

Uncle Sam on stilts. Quadrennial pretend presidential candidate Donald Trump. A slew of legitimate White House hopefuls.

There was enough red, white and blue swag, NRA buttons, Rand Paul stickers, GOP tote bags, Gingrich (Newt and Callista) books and red meat to keep happy every movement Republican who filled the hallways and meeting rooms at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday.

The suburban Washington convention center that hosted CPAC — typically the GOP's largest annual party (in nonconvention years, of course) — roared to life with speeches by big Republican stars like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and breakout sessions that sought to answer weighty questions.

A booth at CPAC promotes Sarah Palin's latest cable television show, <em>Amazing America.</em>
Liz Halloran / NPR
A booth at CPAC promotes Sarah Palin's latest cable television show, Amazing America.

Among them:

Does Congress Matter Anymore?

Does Legalized Pot Mean Society's Going Up In Smoke?

What's The Deal With Global Warming?

But alongside the big-room speeches and sideline hawking of books and policy, what's always striking about CPAC is the fun everyone seems be having. (CPAC's "everyone" is mostly young, overwhelmingly white and socially conservative.)

The American Conservative Union, which sponsors the conference, has always made sure that young conservatives could afford to attend the three-day event, which has become fertile ground for those hunting for jobs and internships in the movement.

In the National Rifle Association-sponsored CPAC Hub, where booths are tucked cheek-by-jowl touting everything from Tea Party Patriot videos to a slew of tax reform efforts, Patrice Lee is one of those young faces.

"We're tired of government spending and cronyism," said Lee, presiding over a booth sponsored by Koch brothers-funded Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty and manned almost exclusively by young men in camouflage pants and Army green T-shirts.

"This is all about activism," she said.

Around the corner, Veronica Jones was on a ladder in one booth, painting a mural as part of dayslong performance art for a crowdfunded advocacy portal called Movements.us. Not far away, Nan Swift of the National Taxpayers Union presided over a "Cards Against Humanity" game modeled after the popular "Apples to Apples."

"Everyone here is a taxpayer group, but we're the fun one," she said.

There were some fresh messages among the old ones being delivered from the stages of the National Harbor convention center. But there were also hints at the party fractiousness that remained largely hidden during opening day.

In an afternoon panel on reaching out to new voters, when one participant suggested that rejecting people — potential voters — is not a recipe for winning, another panelist interjected: "A little rejection is OK, right?"

Setting the stage perfectly for Friday — when the convention has set aside time and space for a panel discussion on the party's libertarian and social conservative divide — is a speech from the man who seems to be straddling that fault line: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a favorite of young party members.

As a final act, Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, will speak Saturday evening.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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