The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which attracts thousands of grass-roots conservatives to Washington, D.C., gets under way Thursday and political eyes are watching the event to be a harbinger of what's to come for the still bruised Republican Party.
The smorgasbord of book signings, movie promotions, panel discussions and top flight speakers serves as a nexus of conservative thought and allows rank-and-file voters to mingle with their role models. But the tension that's plagued the Republican Party following the 2012 electoral defeats is spilling over to CPAC this year and some conservatives wonder what role the conference still plays.
"This is really a trade show for ideas," says Ken Hoagland, chairman of Restore America's Voice, a conservative political action committee. "I find that it's a very dynamic exchange between true grass-roots, everyday Americans and organizations that are trying to use the strength of the grass roots to affect change."
Excluded from this year's event, hosted by the American Conservative Union, are popular GOP Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. McDonnell spoke at last year's conference and Christie was the keynote speaker at the most recent Republican National Convention. But both have inflamed conservatives over perceived slights.
Instead, firebrands Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are all slated for speeches. Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant and Ronald Reagan biographer, says CPAC used to be a place where right wing activists pressed the Republican Party to be more conservative and that's been lost in recent years.
"CPAC has been blended together with Republicanism," he says. "Now it's about elections when it used to be about ideas and philosophy. It's a victim of its own success."
But this year's agenda isn't exclusively by the conservative book. After all, failed Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney, never a CPAC favorite thanks to his moderate tenure as governor of Massachusetts, will also be speaking, to the curiosity of many.
"He's acknowledged he's not in a position to give advice to the Republican Party," Shirley says, adding that he's not sure what Romney will offer up to the audience.
But Hoagland says he's happy to see Romney speak.
"I think there's some healing that needs to be done, so I think that would be a very healthy thing," he says. "Most of the people on the conservative side are just now coming out of shock. They just can't believe, given the metrics in the country, that President Obama won and there are a lot of theories about why that happened."
One Republican consultant who helped advise the Romney presidential campaign says the notion CPAC is too mainstream to influence the GOP is dead wrong.
"The problem with CPAC now is that they are getting so far away from the mainstream that they have given others an excuse to ignore them," he says. "Choosing Donald Trump over Chris Christie is not a sign of independence or purity, it is a sign that they are flirting with irrelevance.
"There are still notables attending and it will be interesting to see what they say and how the platform is used by different people. The people to watch coming out of this will be those who can get cheers from CPAC while speaking to the country."
The seeming discord reflects the struggle for success for the Republican Party writ large. Observers are eager to see which stars shine brighter following the grass-roots confab and those who fall back to earth. The conference culminates with a straw vote for attendees' favorite pol, another sign of who is standing atop the GOP heap.