GOP Presidential Hopefuls Court CPAC Attendees
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, know as CPAC, is under way in Washington, D.C.
Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump spoke Thursday, teasing the crowd about possible presidential bids. A long list of other Republican hopefuls for 2012 will speak Friday and Saturday to a crowd that includes many enthusiastic college students and a growing contingent of Tea Party activists.
Two years ago, the Tea Party didn't exist. Last year the movement made something of a splash at CPAC as the new kid on the conservative block. This year, Tea Party energy is front and center.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota gave the opening speech, and other Tea Party heroes spoke as well.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky gave a shout out to those who made his election possible, prompting, "Is there anybody here from the Tea Party?"
The crowd roared.
"Are we going to let Washington co-opt the Tea Party?" Paul asked them.
"No," audience members answered in unison.
"Will you fight for, and help me defend, the Constitution?" Paul asked.
The crowd replied with cheers.
But even the Tea Party contingent isn't as big as the crush of college students who flock to CPAC every year. It's a midwinter escape from campus, and the final tally — organizers expect attendance to top 11,000 — is likely to show that up to half of CPAC attendees are students.
There were long lines at the student registration tables Thursday, part of a concerted effort by the conservative movement to get young people involved.
"After the last couple years, seeing bailout after bailout, bad spending policy after bad spending policy, one day I just decided: You know what? Enough is enough. So I joined the Tea Party, and I started one on campus," said Kevin Seballa, a fiscal conservative from Stony Brook University in New York.
Polls nationally show young voters are more likely to support same-sex marriage. That's evident at this conservative conference as well.
"The pro-life movement is definitely very appealing to younger evangelical Christians," said Josh Kunkle, a senior at Manchester College in Indiana. "Definitely pushing the whole gay marriage thing, that's more toward older folks. I don't feel like our generation really cares about that at all."
But for all of the focus on the youth, the biggest moment of Day One of CPAC came when the organization gave its Defender of the Constitution Award to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The award was preceded by a surprise: Rumsfeld was introduced by his old friend, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The crowd erupted, chanting "USA! USA!"
Cheney, who wears an external heart pump, moved well and looked healthier than he has at some recent appearances. He jokingly acknowledged the crowd in typically unsentimental fashion.
"All right, sit down and shut up," Cheney told the group.
There were loud cheers for both Cheney and Rumsfeld. There was also some heckling by some in the crowd opposed to the war in Iraq and its costs. Still, the applause drowned out the booing.
"It's good to be here," Rumsfeld told the crowd. "I have been around so long that I remember a time when CPAC did not exist, when Ronald Reagan was still an actor, when Barry Goldwater was our candidate for president, and we only worried about socialism outside of the United States."
Rumsfeld joked that there is still time for Cheney to get on the ballot in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Those who are more likely to be in those early voting states continue their parade before the CPAC audience over the next two days. A presidential straw poll will be held Saturday. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.