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Conservatives Gather To Hear & Debate

 Pictured from left, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Paul Ryan & Gov. Chris Christie. The each have high profile speeches this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington DC.  Donald Trump, and Gov. Bobby Jindal are also scheduled to appear, but House Speaker John Bohener was not invited this year.,

As conservatives and tea party activists gather in Washington this week for the annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference, some potential 2016 presidential contenders will be jockeying for the spotlight.


Thursday marks the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast.

Conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin  and Donald Trump headline a crowded Thursday speaking program that also features National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Conservatives have been slow to embrace the New Jersey governor (see poll at right or more on Christie below). Christie wasn't invited to last year's conference but gets the chance to make his first public address in Washington since a political retribution scandal erupted in January.

The event comes one year after Republican officials released a comprehensive plan to broaden the GOP's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season.

But the party is far from united as it looks to the future. The conference is expected to showcase intraparty divisions on foreign policy, political strategy and social issues.

The debate could weigh heavily on the November midterm elections, which will decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill for the final two years of President Barack Obama's presidency.


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Prof. Kevin Hardwick, Canisius College
who has led led a group of students to the C-PAC in past years.

Political Reporter Dave Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity

Trump Supporter  & Political operative Michael Caputo
With control of the Senate within the GOP's reach, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas says there are early signs of a pragmatic shift among conservative activists who typically favor ideological purity at all costs.

"Most people are realizing that it's cool to be selecting the most conservative in the race, but there's an additional caveat that needs to be added, and that's who can win in the general election," he said.

Cardenas said the conference will also address Obama's positions on income inequality and the political unrest in Ukraine. He said he's particularly looking forward to intraparty debates in panel discussions with titles such as "Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?"

The three-day conference ends Saturday
The next presidential election may be two years away, but a look inside a recent CBS News/New York Times poll offers some clues as to what tea party Republicans may be looking for in 2016 - at least at this early stage.

Tea party Republicans show the most interest in Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as a presidential contender and the least in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Gov. Jeb Bush R-Fla., is close behind in the percent who'd like to see a run, along with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Fifty-six percent of Republicans who identify as tea partiers would like to see Paul run in 2016 - the highest percentage of any GOPer asked about in the poll and the only potential contender to reach the 50 percent mark. Just 13 percent of tea party Republicans don't want Paul to run.

Still, Paul isn't the only contender tea party Republicans have their eye on. Other potential Republican candidates asked about in the poll are fairly popular:

More than four in 10 would like to see former Bush (48 percent), Cruz (43 percent), and Rubio (43 percent) run for president in 2016. Although many don't know enough about Cruz or Rubio to have an opinion about whether they should make a run for the White House.

There is little enthusiasm among tea party Republicans for a Christie candidacy. Even before the bridge scandal, the New Jersey governor was not fully embraced by the tea party wing of the party. Just 27 percent think he should run for president -the lowest of any of the figures asked about; nearly twice as many (50 percent) would rather him not run.


Things stack up a bit differently among non-tea party Republicans. Christie and Bush capture the most interest among this faction of the party. There is still some support for a Paul candidacy but far less than among tea partiers.

Cruz, who addressed the Tea Party Patriots last week, does not have as many pushing him to run among the non-tea party backers., but most are unfamiliar with him.

Tea party supporters make up 42 percent of self-identified Republicans, and far more say they are very conservative (50 percent) than those Republicans not affiliated with the movement (13 percent). Many also have a desire for more conservative Republican candidates, generally -- half of tea party Republicans think the GOP nominates candidates who are not conservative enough.

AP PhotoFor some of the 2016 hopefuls, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the conference will reaffirm their popularity among the party's right flank. But for one in particular, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his speech will offer a critical reality check on where he stands with the party faithful.

(CBS)  Christie, at odds with the party in 2013 over his decision to appear with President Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, wasn't even invited to CPAC last year. But this year, even though he's embroiled in a scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, he has prime speaking slot where the enthusiasm will help show whether the scandal has dashed his hopes for a presidential campaign.

As the head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie will tap into the natural success stories of conservative governors around the country who have had wide berths to legislate compared to their counterparts in Washington. The message is inherently critical of Washington, and he'll also call on conservatives to stop the infighting in the party - which may rankle supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has been a thorn in the side of his colleagues many times this year.

Christie will aim to win points by urging Republicans to stop letting the media define the party, and echo many of his colleagues in calling for the party to build broader alliances.

Though New Jersey residents have seemed content to focus on Sandy recovery and budget priorities in recent months, the scandal has taken a toll. In a McClatchy-Marist poll released in February, he trailed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup by a margin of 58 to 37 percent -- a contest where he was in a dead heat as recently as November.

And, in the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, Christie trailed Paul and former Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., among Republicans who were asked which potential candidates they would like to see run. In fact, more (41 percent) said they would not like Christie to run for president than said they would (31 percent).

AP PhotoThe event also stands to be a test for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has seen his popularity decline over the last year after he worked on a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate that was firmly rejected by the House and then largely stayed out of the public eye. At an unscientific straw poll of attendees in 2013, he received 23 percent of the votes, a mere two percent behind Paul. Rubio has been a vocal critic of the president's foreign policy recently, however, a topic that will undoubtedly win him favor with the audience. The question is whether he can come anywhere close to replicating last year's results.

Paul appeared in 2013 on the heels of his famous 13-hour filibuster of CIA nominee John Brennan, helping secure his 25 percent victory in the straw poll. He's had a good year, with few visible slip ups (evidence of plagiarism in his work and speeches doesn't appear to have left any lasting damage), but there will be other rising stars nipping at his heels.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was already a popular conservative figure when he spoke at least year's gathering, and has only raised his profile further in the past year with a 21-hour filibuster of a spending bill and aggressive efforts to defund the health care law that led to a government shutdown. He got just four percent at the 2013 straw poll last year, but nine percent of Republicans in the much broader Quinnipiac survey earlier this year.

Several of the failed 2012 hopefuls will make an appearance, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as 2008 candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But perhaps the biggest question mark for the 2016 Republican field won't be there: Jeb Bush.

Bush commands substantial interest among self-identified Republicans, 41 percent of whom said they'd like to see him make a run at the White House in a CBS News/New York Times poll. His mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, has said that the country has had enough of her family and that she hoped her second son wouldn't try for the White House. But on Wednesday, she softened her tone a bit.

"Maybe it's OK," she said.

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