WASHINGTON — If there was any doubt that there is a huge amount of discord within the Republican Party, the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference should put it to rest.
The suburban Washington gathering of the most conservative elements of the GOP this week featured speaker after speaker picking fights with other Republicans and offering criticisms — sometimes indirect and often direct — of party figures like Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Karl Rove, former president George W. Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Most of the speakers urged Republicans not to change but rather to double down on conservative principles. They included keynote speaker Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., a leader of the new generation of Republicans whom McCain recently labeled “wacko birds.”
“If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution means you’re a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird,” Cruz said Saturday. “I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”
Cruz also argued that the party’s new generation is starting to gain traction, pointing to Sen. Rand Paul — who had just won the straw poll — and his 13-hour filibuster this month against President Barack Obama’s drone program, along with the spending cuts contained in the sequester that took effect at the start of the month.
“For the last three weeks, conservatives have been winning,” Cruz said.
The discord, while nothing new for the party, is particularly noteworthy as it seeks its way forward after a disappointing 2012 election.
Republican officials unhappy with their losses have begun to push for a new core message and changes or moderation on social issues and illegal immigration.
Two recent events have inflamed that debate. First was the launch of a new group headed by Rove that seeks to recruit and nominate more electable Republican candidates, which conservatives see as a veiled attempt to elect less-conservative Republicans. Second was Paul’s filibuster, which earned the ire of foreign policy hawks like McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
McCain has since apologized for his “wacko birds” comment, but he was booed several times at CPAC.
The speakers at CPAC were united against the McCain and Rove element in the party, picking on them repeatedly and suggesting that conservative principles would win the day if the party stuck with them.
“We do know deep down, as Ronald Reagan did, that we don’t have to change because . . . we know that we’re right and they’re wrong,” said David Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association and the former chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been a frequent critic of Rove’s new Conservative Victory Project, urged Republicans not to change their principles but instead propose new ideas.
“The Republican establishment is just plain wrong about how it approaches politics,” Gingrich said. “The Republican consulting class is just plain wrong about how it approaches politics.”
Former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was more direct, suggesting Rove head back to Texas, where he helped launched George W. Bush’s political career.
“The last thing we need is Washington, D.C., vetting our candidates,” Palin said. “The architects can head on back to the Lone Star State and put their names on some ballot.”
Palin’s jabs were met with a series of standing ovations reminiscent of the period when Palin was perhaps the preeminent figure of the tea party. The response made clear that she maintains huge political capital with the conservative base.
While Cruz was the keynote speaker, Palin riled the crowd up more than anybody, delivering a blistering attack on Obama with a string of one-liners.
“Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Barack Obama: You lie!” she said, alluding to the 2009 incident in which a House member yelled “you lie” at Obama during a speech before Congress.
The crowd went wild when Palin paused mid-speech, produced a Big Gulp from beneath the lectern and mugged for the camera while taking a long sip. Conservatives have savaged New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent, for his proposed ban on sugary beverages of more than 16 ounces.
Before Palin, emerging conservative star and Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson caused a stir by announcing he would soon retire from his practice and alluding twice to speculation that he could be an outsider presidential candidate.
“I want to quit while I’m at the top of my game, and there are so many more things that could be done,” the 61-year-old said as he offered a wry grin and the crowd rose to its feet.
Carson offered a hypothetical involving an unnamed president — and then suggested that president could be him. “Let’s say you magically put me in the White House,” Carson said as the crowd howled.
Carson earned acclaim on the right after appearing at the National Prayer Breakfast last month and criticizing Obama — even as the president sat just a few yards away.
Another Republican dipping his toe into the 2016 presidential campaign during CPAC was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the winner of a contentious 2012 recall election who earned plaudits from conservatives by curbing collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions.
“Someday, maybe once we get past all this, we’ll take a look at it,” Walker said in an interview.
Paul’s victory in the straw poll was widely expected, especially given his father’s past successes in the CPAC straw poll. Former congressman Ron Paul, R-Tex., regularly attracted huge crowds of devoted supporters at CPAC and won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011.
Mitt Romney won it last year, when Ron Paul did not attend the conference.