POSTED: Sunday, March 17, 2013 - 8:21pm
UPDATED: Monday, March 18, 2013 - 10:31am
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (CNN) — Under a large banner that proclaimed "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives," the Oak Ridge Boys and Lee Greenwood belted out tunes such as "The Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Elvira" over back-to-back nights at the just-wrapped Conservative Political Action Conference.
Hardly Justin Bieber or Carrie Underwood.
As Republicans struggle with an intra-party feud over the direction of the party, the bold blue sign that hung over the stage here at National Harbor and the choice of artists at the evening dinners headlined by former Sen. Jim DeMint and former Gov. Jeb Bush seemed to send a mixed message.
To be fair, the Oak Ridge Boys and Greenwood are music legends and there is certainly a place for them at the largest annual gathering of conservative activists.
But Republicans lost the 18-29-year-old vote by a 23-point margin in the 2012 presidential race. And even though establishment Republicans and grassroots conservative activists are at odds over many issues, they agree on this point: Recruiting younger voters to the GOP is a priority. "Elvira" doesn't seem to be the appropriate rallying cry.
So, as conservative activists head back home after soaking up three days of red meat speeches and panels, one thing is clear: The battle for the heart and soul for the Republican Party is just starting. Here are five things to look for post-CPAC:
1. New faces of the conservative movement
Surgeons and U.S. senators are not exactly known for being able to speak in a melodic manner. Dare I say long-winded? Yet, two specific speakers broke this stereotype at CPAC, which I will admit was not a surprise.
Dr. Ben Carson brought people out of their chairs a couple of times as he criticized President Barack Obama's policies.
This is not the first time Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, has taken on the president. At the National Prayer Breakfast, Carson criticized Obama for his policies including his health care overhaul. And before he left the stage, Carson noted he is retiring from medicine soon and hinted that politics is his next step.
But as Carson is starting to break through, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has arrived in terms of conservative politics. That's because Cruz has broken with tradition and as a freshman senator has made his conservative opinions known and has clashed with the likes of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, over guns.
Not only did Cruz deliver the closing speech at CPAC (he made his remarks from in front on the podium, perhaps to be as close to the audience as possible, he was the "surprise introducer" of Sarah Palin, who spoke earlier in the day.
With so much talk about how the GOP needs to appeal to minority voters, it is worth noting that Carson is African-American and Cruz is Hispanic.
2. Karl Rove: Enemy No. 1 (for some conservatives)
OK, perhaps an overstatement. Obama surely holds the top spot on the list of political enemies for those attending CPAC this year. But Rove is viewed by many conservatives as the face of the GOP establishment, which is persona non grata among many in the movement.
Rove came under fire from a number of speakers from the main stage, including Palin: "If these experts who keep losing elections keep getting rehired raking in millions, if they feel that strongly about who gets to run in this party, then they should buck up or stay in the truck. Buck up and run. The architects can head on back to the great Lone Star State and put their name on some ballot, though, for their sake, I hope they give themselves a discount on their consulting services."
As well as Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center: "No wonder Media Matters has called Karl Rove the Republican voice of reason," Bozell said, referencing his organization's liberal counterpart. He added, "The last thing the GOP needs is for the anti-conservative professional political consultant class infecting its ranks. And the last thing we conservatives want is them infiltrating ours."
3. CPAC straw poll doesn't (really) matter
If bragging rights about a nonscientific survey of a relatively small group of people matters, then the CPAC Straw Poll matters. But it doesn't. If the straw poll had significance for anyone at all, then maybe it would have been former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, or Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.
Why single out these two from the 21 other people listed on the ballot? Well, a sizable number of CPAC attendees are either social conservatives, who tend to be attracted to Santorum, or young libertarians, who gravitate towards Paul.
While Mitt Romney won the straw poll in 2012, it was a victory that was achieved more for his organizational efforts than his popularity with conservatives. And Romney is only one of three Republicans who has won the straw poll and gone on to win the GOP nomination. The others: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. As one GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "It gives you bragging rights and headlines for a couple of days." Congratulations Sen. Rand Paul. Come Monday, CPAC will be in the rearview mirror.
4. NRA's influence
While there is so much focus on the National Rifle Association's influence in Washington, we often fail to recognize the organization's reach beyond the nation's capital. Look no farther than the NRA's presence at CPAC: The organization had not one, but two headliner speakers, hosted a "VIP reception," and sponsored much-trafficked booths in the exhibit hall and right outside the main doors of the ballroom.
The NRA was preaching to the choir here at CPAC, but remember most attendees are not inside-the-Beltway types and it was clear at CPAC that people who support the NRA really support the NRA.
5. Winners and losers
Beyond the GOP establishment, it is hard to say there was any real loser at this year's conference. Many people thought it would be the conference itself, because of the exclusion of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell as well as a gay conservative organization GOProud. In the long run, such exclusions might hurt the conference, but in the short term CPAC by and large skirted by the controversy.
After all, a full slate of potential presidential candidates did show up to speak, which leads me to the winners. The chance to speak to this captive audience of grassroots activists is invaluable, and while some White House hopefuls were more effective in delivering their pitches, it is fair to say that Bush, Carson, Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, Santorum, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker can all be satisfied with their respective performances.
While Palin is often mocked by critics, she knows how to deliver a speech and energize the conservative base. She did just that and in typical Palin fashion the former Alaska governor had the moment on Saturday when she pulled out a large soda cup during her speech -- a jab at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large, sugary drinks. She clearly was a winner with the CPAC audience. Many people at the conference were wondering whether Palin will run for president in 2016.
And it is difficult to say that Christie was not also a winner. The New Jersey governor often emphasizes that he is not beholden to anyone, and excluding him from CPAC helped to show that he is not indebted to any corner of the Republican Party. And even though Christie's politics might not fit well with the organizers of CPAC, 7% of attendees chose him as their pick to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. Yes, yes, this nonscientific poll means nothing, but Christie came in fourth even though he was snubbed.
Well, maybe there was one loser: Donald Trump. While he was politely received, the successful businessman, reality TV star and outspoken Obama critic failed to rally the audience in his early Friday morning remarks.