NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Conservative Republicans have convened just outside Washington at CPAC 2015, a three-day parade of speeches designed to rouse the faithful and perhaps make a presidential candidate a front-runner.
The Conservative Political Action Conference is an annual carnival of conservatism for donors, activists and potential candidates. This year it can be seen as a battleground, not only for presidential hopefuls invited to speak but for the direction the embattled party will take as it heads to 2016.
The guest list of speakers includes the names Bush, Palin, Cruz, Christie, Trump, Fiorina, Jindal, Rubio, Perry, Paul, Santorum and others including Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and Nigel Farage of the small-government United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Many of these names are someone's idea of a presidential candidate, and for all intents, the GOP run for the White House starts Thursday with something of an adventure in comparison-shopping.
"Conservatives are hungry to find a standard-bearer, but they're open to who it is," said Matt Schlapp, the new chairman of the American Conservative Union, sponsor of the event, told the Washington Post. "They're actually shopping right now. . . . How (potential candidates) execute will have a huge impact on where the race goes next."
The Republican Party has cracks in its policies, a perception problem, a lack of unity and concerns about its future as it applies to growing demographic minorities. Furthermore, not every Republican in the United States thinks he or she is represented at a conference which blatantly panders to the conservative mindset, and yet the campaign for an election 20 months away has to begin somewhere.
The party is unified in its opposition to President Barack Obama and its contempt for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Expect a three-day festival of mudslinging, except in those moments the conventioneers stop to ponder the future and of how the GOP has not been well-served by negativity.
Each of the speakers regarded as presidential timber (Jeb Bush will use his allotted time not for an address but for a question-and-answer session with conservative commentator Sean Hannity) already has a loyal core of supporters; CPAC will reveal if the prospective candidates can bridge gaps and turn themselves into favorites, at the expense of their rivals. The conference thus has the elements of a tent revival meeting, a boardroom debate about funding and an "American Idol" audition: Take an up-close look, note the talent and potential and choose one.
Going into this year's event it is difficult to point to a front-runner. Mitt Romney's star was ascending until he chose not to contest for the nomination; Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., are currently at the top of polls. No one seems completely in line with the party line; the take on immigration of Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or the isolationist stance of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for example, are at odds with standard Republican ideology.
Attendees' opinions will mesh on gun control, small government and messages on bumper stickers for sale ("Fight crime, shoot back"). Who walks away, Saturday, a winner, or at least a front-runner, remains to be seen.