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CPAC 2013 - Why It Matters, Who's Going
PHOTO: 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference

Today marks the start of a three-day gathering of conservative leaders and activists from around the country. The Conservative Political Action Conference -- CPAC, for short -- is organized by the American Conservative Union and has become an annual focal point that brings together establishment figures, new leaders, grassroots types and, in particular, the younger generation of conservatives. It kicks off this morning at the Gaylord National Hotel in National Harbor, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

We'll be covering the speeches and panels extensively, and here's a quick guide about what we can expect:

WHO'S GOING: A whole lot of big-name speakers such as Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and many more. Numerous other lawmakers from Capitol Hill will also address the gathering and attendees will also have a chance to hear from a host of unelected officials who play a prominent role on policy and other matters within the conservative orbit: the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre, American Crossroads head Steven Law, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and Heritage Foundation President and former Sen. Jim DeMint.

WHO'S NOT GOING: The two most-talked-about names who don't have speaking slots at this year's CPAC conference are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (although McDonnell plans to participate in a prayer breakfast associated with the conference on Friday morning). American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas did not mince words about why Christie was not invited this year: "This past year he strongly advocated for the passage of a $60-plus billion pork barrel bill, containing only $9 billion in disaster assistance and he signed up with the federal government to expand Medicaid at a time when his state can ill afford it, so he was not invited to speak. ... Hopefully, he will be back in top form next year. We would be delighted to invite him again in that case." Nevertheless, the exclusion of politicians like Christie and McDonnell and the inclusion of someone like Donald Trump has already led some conservative pundits to declare that "CPAC is dead." There are other big names who will be absent too, including House Speaker John Boehner, Arizona Sen, and former GOP nominee John McCain, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and more. Click Here for ABC's Chris Good's compiled list of the "13 Top Republican You Won't See At CPAC."

MITT'S MOMENT: Mitt Romney has chosen this year's conference as the venue for his first major speech since losing the 2012 election. He offered a preview of his post-election thoughts during a recent interview on Fox News Sunday, but his remarks to the gathering (scheduled for 1 p.m. ET on Friday) will be his chance to set a tone for his future role within the Republican Party. We'll be watching to see whether he focuses on lessons learned from 2012, what he would be doing differently if he were in the White House, his vision for the future or all of the above. Recall that in his March 3 Fox interview, he said: "As the guy who lost the election, I'm not in a position to tell everyone else how to win," but added: "I'm not going to disappear." Notably, CPAC is something of a fraught venue for Romney. It was at the same conference in 2008 that he dropped out of that year's Republican presidential primary. And last year it was at CPAC where he declared himself "a severely conservative Republican governor" -- a comment that did not win him much praise on the right.

WHO IS THE KEYNOTE SPEAKER?: Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, who will be the last major speaker at the conference before it wraps up on Saturday night. Just a few months since arriving in Washington, Cruz, of Texas, has already established himself as a hard-charging, outspoken and controversial figure on Capitol Hill. He made waves in his questioning of Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearings and some knowledgeable Texas Republicans say Cruz has privately told associates that he is thinking about a 2016 presidential bid. Cruz is scheduled to speak at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.

2016 LIKE IT'S TODAY: As we've already mentioned, this year's conference will include many of the top potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016 (Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, etc.), so it will be a chance for them to position themselves for the years ahead as they contemplate higher office. And it's clear that after Romney's loss, many conservatives are already focused on taking back the White House in 2016. Of course, the coming midterm elections, and even the two 2013 governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, will also be a topic of conversation this week, but make no mistake: 2016 is already upon us. CPAC and the Washington Examiner are also collaborating on a 2016 straw poll, the results of which will be announced near the conclusion of the event on Saturday. (We'll see if the Ron Paul forces stack the deck in favor of Rand.) GOP SOUL-SEARCHING: This year's conference comes against a backdrop of intense Republican concern about the future of the party. Just a few days from now -- on this coming Monday -- the Republican National Committee plans to release the results of a months-long effort called the "Growth and Opportunity Project" that is meant to chart a course forward on key issues such as how to better engage minority voters and how to close the GOP's digital divide with Democrats, among other things. But just four months since the November 2012 election it's already clear that there are major divisions within the party on some of these issues -- immigration reform is a good example. And there's no doubt that we'll hear a lot of talk this week about controversies such as the move by the Karl Rove-backed group, American Crossroads, to take an active role in weeding out those they deem "problem" candidates in GOP primaries in favor of those who they believe would be better positioned to win in a general election. We are likely to see the differences and disagreements within the Republican Party in stark relief over the next three days, and it's a story line we will be following closely. ON THE LIGHTER SIDE: CPAC is not just about serious speechmaking and politicking. This year's conference, for example, features a panel called "Fight Club 2013," a debate between liberal heavyweight Paul Begala and conservative pundit Tucker Carlson. There's another panel titled: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plastic Water Bottles, Fracking, Genetically Modified Food and Big Gulp Sodas," and yet another called "Getting Hollywood Right." One attendee has even released a helpful guide for fellow conference-goers, "What to Wear at CPAC" (business suits, button-downs, pumps and loafers are in; rompers, halter-tops, T-shirts and Tom's shoes are out). And the nightlife should prove interesting too: on Friday, for example, CPAC is hosting what it's calling the Obama Zombie Apocalypse Party. The motto: "First they come for your brains, then they come for your ballots."

BOTTOM LINE: From ABC's Rick Klein: "There they will all be (mostly) in one place, several generations lost about the next race. Perhaps the only thing attendees at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference can agree on is the "conservative" label. Beyond that, question about who's not there (Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, GOP gay-rights groups) are competing with questions about who is (lots of future stars, sure, though nobody figures to get more coverage than Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin). Attention and talk will turn to 2016, including the straw poll winner who almost certainly won't be the party nominee. But of more immediate concern to the gathered conservative flock is how attendees interact with their allies on Capitol Hill. The red meat is set to be served at the first time in the Obama presidency that Republicans are breaking bread with the president. The message coming from CPAC is highly unlikely to involve bargains with President Obama, grand or otherwise."

MORE CPAC SPEAKERS: Sen. Kelly Ayotte; Rep. Michele Bachmann; Sen. John Barrasso; former Rep. Ann Marie Beurkle; Rep. Diane Black; Rep. Marsha Blackburn;Rep. Michael Burgess; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Producer, Writer and Consultant Pat Caddell; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor; Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery Dr. Benjamin Carson; Rep. Jason Chaffetz; Rep. Tom Cotton; Sen. Tom Coburn; Sen. Ted Cruz; Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli; former Rep. Artur Davis; Rep. Sean Duffy and Rachel Campos-Duffy; Heritage Foundation President-Elect Jim DeMint; Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner; ACU Board Member Carly Fiorina; Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton; Rep. Cory Gardner; former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; Rep. Louie Gohmert; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; Sen. Ron Johnson; Producer Mark Joseph; NRA President and ACU Board Member David Keene; Rep. Steve King; Screenwriter Howie Klausner; Rep. Raúl Labrador; NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre; Sen. Mike Lee; Mayor of Saratoga Springs; Utah Mia Love; former Rep.Connie Mack; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers; Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell; Producer Gerald Molen; U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito; U.S. Representative Devin Nunes; U.S. Representative Tom Price; Radio Host and Breitbart TV Editor in Chief Larry O'Connor; former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin; U.S. Senator Rand Paul; U.S. Representative Steve Pearce; Texas Governor Rick Perry; U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo; U.S. Senator Marco Rubio; U.S. Representative Paul Ryan; U.S. Representative Matt Salmon; former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum; U.S. Representative Steve Scalise; Eagle Forum Founder Phyllis Schlafly; U.S. Senator Tim Scott; U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner; U.S. Representative Lamar Smith; Director and Writer John Sullivan; U.S. Senator Pat Toomey; Donald Trump; U.S. Representative Ann Wagner; former Rep. Allen West; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

SEE THE FULL AGENDA: http://conservative.org/cpac/2013/

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