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Republicans revel, and clash, at CPAC conference

Amid optimism about potential GOP election gains this year, they also display their divisions. 'Tea party' activists share stages with old-school conservatives.

February 18, 2010|By James Oliphant

Reporting from Washington — Energized by an increasingly favorable political environment, the nation's conservatives gathered here Thursday speaking optimistically of seizing control this year of Congress and, ultimately, the White House.

But finding the fault lines beneath the message wasn't difficult. All one had to do was walk around the corner.

GOP event: An article in Friday's Section A about the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington referred to Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as the House majority leader. He is the minority leader. —

As a crowd stood in a hotel ballroom to applaud former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a onetime presidential candidate who sounds like he is preparing for another run, a conservative Senate candidate in a neighboring room was talking about the enemy, and he didn't mean Democrats.

"The threat isn't always from the organized left," warned J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman running in Arizona's GOP primary against Sen. John McCain.

Despite all the enthusiasm among Republicans watching the struggles of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, the three-day meeting here of the Conservative Political Action Conference is a reminder that the GOP's house is also not in order.

Though the party is trying to tap into the vibrancy of the growing anti-government "tea party" movement, mainstream Republicans fret that they could become victims of anti-incumbent fever, or that their difficult primary fights could end up benefiting Democrats.

Tea party activists shared stages with old-school conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly and established politicians such as Romney and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). It led to some inevitable collisions, such as when former House leader Dick Armey, now a tea party organizer, told GOP officeholders that "they must come to us and show they're worthy of our loyalty."

It's more than an idle threat. Armey and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a patron of hard-core conservatives, pledged that moderate Republicans should expect to battle more conservative candidates in this year's congressional primaries.

Hayworth is one such candidate. Another is Marco Rubio, running against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. Rubio, who is leading in polls, was warmly embraced by the CPAC crowd. This year's elections are, he said, "a referendum on our very identity as a nation."

Romney, about whom many conservatives remain skeptical, received a less ardent welcome than the man who introduced him, newly elected Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

The conference's exhibit hall is populated by the stalwarts of American conservatism: antiabortion advocates, gun rights activists, constitutional warriors, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, and old-line groups such as the John Birch Society.

Sam Swedberg, 21, of St. Cloud, Minn., stood dressed in a Sumo wrestling costume, ready, he said, to wrestle "big government." He is a member of Young Americans for Liberty, an outgrowth of the libertarian presidential candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Nearby, William Temple, a star of a tea party documentary, strolled about in the garb of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Francis Marion.

An executive producer of the film, Luke Livingston, said there would be inevitable conflicts between the movement and the GOP. But at CPAC, Livingston said, "I see a Republican Party with open arms. And we're all ears."

"Tea partiers know it's a losing proposition to create a third party," he said. "The goal is to put forth our principles. But I don't think the tea party will be emulsified into the Republican Party. The brand is too strong. They're not going to allow that."

Paul, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are headliners at the conference. Saturday's keynote speaker will be Fox News personality Glenn Beck.

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