LIVE UPDATES: Conservatives Rally at First Day of CPAC 2013

Thursday marks day one of the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference - an annual gathering in Washington, D.C. where members of the GOP meet to cement their ideology and try out potential presidential nominees for the coming years. Read background about the event here.

Refresh here for live updates and behind-the-scenes looks throughout the day.

All times are in Eastern Standard Time.

4:50 p.m. Survive CPAC with Swag

As with all the big name political rallies these days, CPAC has its own swag. Here is one example from Fusion's Jordan Fabian:

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4:00 p.m. Rick Perry Hints at Another Presidential Run

ABC's Arlette Saenz reports:

Were John McCain and Mitt Romney conservative enough for Republicans in 2008 and 2012? Texas Governor Rick Perry says no.

In his speech at CPAC, Perry, who failed in his own bid for president in 2012, said that the argument that the "country has shifted away from conservative ideals" is false.

"That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservatives in 2008 and 2012," Perry said to applause from the crowd. "Might be true."

Perry did eventually endorse Mitt Romney several months after his own presidential bid ended, but he long criticized his Republican opponent in 2012 for his lack of conservatism- often calling him a "conservative of convenience."

At CPAC Perry also commented on the common belief that Republicans need to work on their appeal to Hispanic voters, saying he knew what drew in Hispanic voters in Texas.

"It is the free enterprise agenda that allows small businesses to prosper free of government interference. It is the policies that value the family unit as the best and closest form of government. It's the belief in life and the faith in God," Perry said. "No one who risked life and limb to reach our shores comes here hoping for a government handout."

He may still be recovering from his last bid for president, but is the Texas governor open to a 2016 run? He mentioned that he enjoys coming to Washington, D.C. - a potential hint about another presidential run down the road.

"For all the bad things I say about Washington, I never mind coming here," Perry said.

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2:54 p.m. POTUS Jokes Crossing Capitol 'Like Moving Between East and West Germany'

Conservatives in National Harbor, Md., just wrapped up a panel questioning President Obama's handling of the attack on America's consulate in Benghazi last September.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, ABC's John Parkinson reports Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer escorted President Obama to the House side of the Capitol, where a waiting House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving received him to complete the escort into the auditorium where he is meeting with the House Democratic Caucus today.

"It's like moving between East and West Germany," the president quipped as he shook hands with Irving. President Obama then turned to the camera, waved and said, "Hi guys."

Read more news of the day from nation's capitol here.

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2:46 p.m. Marco Rubio Denies Being a 'Bigot,' Silent on Immigration

ABC's Arlette Saenz reports:

Sen. Marco Rubio today challenged some of the stereotypes affixed to the Republican Party on two hot-button topics, abortion and gay marriage, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that his positions on the issues make him neither a "chauvinist" nor a "bigot."

"In order to work together with people you disagree with, there has to be mutual respect," the Florida Republican told CPAC. "That means I respect people that disagree with me on certain things, but they have to respect me, too.

"Just because I believe that states should have the rights to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot. Just because we believe that life, all life, all human life is worthy of protection of every stage in its development does not make you a chauvinist."

Rubio, 41, continued to argue that science was on his side when it comes to abortion, saying "the people who are actually close-minded in American politics are the people that love to preach about the certainty of science when regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science is proven that life begins at conception."

Read more on Rubio's defense of conservative ideas here from Saenz here.

Fusion's Jordan Fabian points out there's one issue Rubio didn't touch - immigration:

The most notable part of Rubio's address may have been his decision to avoid speaking about immigration reform. The senator has played a central role on the issue as a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" drafting an immigration bill in the Senate. But the proposal put forth by the group contains one provision that has not been fully embraced by the CPAC crowd: an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Just hours before Rubio spoke, CPAC held a panel on immigration reform that received a mixed reception from the audience of conservative activists. But panelists argued it's a crucial task to convince other conservatives to support immigration reform, in part to win back Hispanic voters who have largely abandoned in the GOP.

"What I would hope is that you help conservatives who are putting their neck on the line," to find a solution, Jennifer Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, told the audience during the panel. "You can be conservative and you can be for immigration reform. I ask you to be part of the solution."

Read more from Fabian on Rubio's speech here.

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1:46 p.m. Rubio, Rand Paul Keep Laughs Coming at CPAC

Analysis from ABC's Rick Klein:

Marco Rubio has his water jokes, and now Rand Paul has his filibuster jokes. The possible 2016 rivals spoke back-to-back on CPAC's main stage, with Paul bringing along binders full of … papers, on which he joked was 13 hours' worth of speeches. Pols break through to pop culture for all sorts of strange reasons these days, and here are two younger Republicans who get that.

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1:37 p.m. Conservatives Wrestle With Immigration Divide

Fusion's Jordan Fabian reports:

Speakers on an immigration-reform panel on Thursday morning pitched immigration as an issue that's compatible with conservative principles, but they received a relatively quiet reception from the audience of activists gathered in the conference hall.

"What I would hope is that you help conservatives who are putting their neck on the line," to find a solution, said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. "You can be conservative and you can be for immigration reform. I ask you to be part of the solution."

While the four panelists all agreed on the need to repair the nation's broken immigration system, opinions varied on how to address some of the most pressing issues of reform, including how to handle the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

A bipartisan plan being drafted in the Senate includes an earned pathway to full citizenship for undocumented immigrants. President Barack Obama has said that a final bill must include a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who will address CPAC later Thursday, has helped craft the Senate plan.

But several panelists indicated that Republicans would prefer a path to legal status that doesn't provide a separate path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Read more from Fabian here.

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1:25 p.m. Marco Rubio Garners Loud Applause

1:12 p.m. Michigan GOP's Anuzis Eyes Senate Seat

ABC News' Shushannah Walshe and Chris Good report from CPAC:

One person helping to put on CPAC this year is former Michigan state party chair, Saul Anuzis. He also helped run the Romney campaign in Michigan and now is seriously considering entering elected politics himself, telling ABC News he is taking a good look at running for the open U.S. Senate seat that will be vacated in 2014 with Sen. Carl Levin's retirement.

"Michigan is in a unique situation," Anuzis said in the hallways of the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md. "Michigan is a purple seat that could turn red in the right circumstances and in an off presidential year is when we have traditionally won our seats…I think it could be a unique opportunity so I'm talking to everyone who is interested in running, I'm talking to our donors, I'm talking to our activists to see what the feel is out there. We will see who ultimately emerges, but I am looking at it myself and I will decide in the next couple of weeks if I can put together a race to make it competitive."

Anuzis, who also ran unsuccessfully for RNC chair in 2009 and 2011, said the most important thing is making sure a Republican wins, whether it is him or someone else, and he's being "practical" about it.

"If one of our congressman or someone who has a better base emerges, I want to win this seat," Anuzis said. "This is a chance for Republicans to pick up a seat that we have not traditionally been able to hold, so it is a unique opportunity, and I may or may not be the right guy for the job, and we are trying to make an honest assessment of it."

Other Michigan Republicans who have been talked about as possibilities for the seat are GOP Reps. Justin Amash, Dave Camp and Mike Rogers.

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12:51 p.m. Allen West, 'Still Alive,' Talks Gay Marriage, Immigration

ABC News' Shushannah Walshe and Chris Good report:

ABC News caught up with former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., at CPAC and despite his loss to Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., in November he said "2012 was great for me."

"I'm still alive," West said while he was stopping to greet supporters outside of the main ballroom here. "You guys think just because you lose a congressional race doesn't mean you are dead, doesn't mean you can't continue to serve your country so to be here to be part of the opening speaking and continue to talk about our country, I'm doing fine."

CPAC invited West to give the keynote speech at the conference in 2011. This year he was one of the first speakers opening up CPAC 2013, held in National Harbor, Md. As for his political future he said he is "probably not" going to make a run for his former South Florida in 2014 because "there are a lot of things I want to do," but he kept the door open for 2016.

"I want to help others so we're going to launch a PAC that will help minority and military conservatives," West said. "That's my immediate focus and then we will see what God leads me to do in 2016."

As for some of the hotter topics at this year's CPAC he said he has "no problem with civil unions and I think that's something everyone can agree on," but the focus of the country should be on "economic security, our international security and our national security."

"I think immigration ties into that because it affects your economy. It affects your national security because everyone coming across the border is not just going to try and cut grass and work," West said. "First and foremost what I want to make sure is tax payer funded benefits are not going to people who are here illegally, we've got to make sure we are doing the right thing to secure our border and enforce our laws and then further down the road we can have some sort of path to residency."

On the lighter side he said he is most looking forward to seeing younger conservatives, "passing the baton" and "raising the next conservative leader."

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11:48 a.m. Free Beer from Ben Franklin at CPAC

One unlikely hashtag out of CPAC is lighting up Twitter this morning: #IMetBen.

The #IMetBen tweets are mostly accompanied by photos of young conservatives posing with a Benjamin Franklin mascot at the conference.

Turns out these tweets earn the senders a free drink ticket from The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Franklin is widely - though some would argue inaccurately - quoted as saying, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Here are some of those tweets:

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11:24 a.m. CPAC Heckler Interrupts Immigration Speech

Fusion's Jordan Fabian reports:

Republican officials are trying to strike a new tone on immigration reform here at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but the issue is still a contentious one for many in the conservative movement.

Take for example GOP pollster Whit Ayres's speech to CPAC on Thursday. Ayres called for the party to form a new center-right coalition by aggressively reaching out to hard-working Hispanics who believe in family values.

One audience member shouted out: "legally!"

The heckler was a lone wolf and Ayres faced a largely measured and polite reception. But the incident showed that immigration reform is far from a settled matter for in the conservative grassroots.

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10:59 a.m. Santorum for President?

John Santorum/Facebook

Brett Stokholm, a junior from the Citadel, spoke to ABC's Shushannah Walshe about Rick Santorum's son John running for class president. He's in the same "company" as the freshman Santorum, but since he's in a different class he can't vote for him. He only had good things to say about the younger Santorum.

"I think he would do the work really well," Stokholm said. "I think he's got the motivation and capability to do what needs to be done as class president."

But, as for his father and his presidential aspirations Stokholm says "family relation will have no impact" and his election will be "based on merit" alone.

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10:37 a.m. Gohmert: Vietnam War was 'Winnable'

At a panel about American wars and whether the U.S. can afford them, Rep. Louis Gohmert insisted the U.S. would have won the Vietnam war if we had given the right resources to the troops.

"You don't send American men and women unless you will give them the permission and ability to win, then bring them home," Gohmert, R-Texas, said.

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10:29 a.m. Reagan Blowing Up at CPAC?

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10:04 a.m. Rubio Post-State of the Union Water Bottle Meme Lives on at CPAC

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9:46 a.m. - Toomey Rallies Republicans with Morning Appearance

(Image Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

Reviving the term crony capitalism and sporting a blue polka dot tie, Sen. Pat Toomey took the stage Thursday morning to criticize the left and re-energize his conservative audience.

"Frankly, we've got to win not only this fight, but we've got many more coming and we've got to be engaged in all of them," Toomey, R-Pa., said.

He went on to touch on some of the core principles of CPAC, praising the family unit, condemning government spending and warning that America is headed on a path towards Greece's fate if the debt continues to grow.

"We have gone on a spending binge as I mentioned we've doubled the size of government in recent years," Toomey told the audience. "What has it gotten us? It's gotten us the weakest economy since the Great Depression."

"This is what happens when the government gets too big. This is what happens when the government spends too much."

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9:10 a.m. - CPAC 2013 - Why It Matters, Who's Going and What We Will Learn from It…

(Image Credit: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Newscom)

From ABC's Michael Falcone:

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 bringing 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 like 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. (A more extensive list of speakers follows at the bottom of this note). 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 have 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 (a prominent Hispanic Republican), Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and Heritage Foundation president and former U.S. 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 senator and former GOP nominee John McCain, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and more. ABC's Chris Good compiled a 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 Mar. 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 newspaper 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 their party. In fact, just a few days from now - on 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 like 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 Nov. 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 like 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, tee-shirts and Tom's shoes are out). And the nightlife should prove interesting too: on Friday, for example, CPAC is hosting what they are 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.


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Curated by ABC's Z. Byron Wolf and Sarah Parnass