Conservative Powwow Goes Soft

CPAC rand paul cutout
Volunteers wait for guests to be photographed with a Sen. Rand Paul cardboard cutout. Mike Theiler/Reuters

National Harbor, Maryland - Over the years, the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has grown into a bigger, sleeker, more professional version of its former self.

Some of the grassroots flavor and more ultra-conservative fringe ideas that made the conference such a big media draw in the past -- Tea Party fans dressed in colonial garb; endless chatter about where President Obama was really born -- have either simmered down or been pushed out.

"There was a period of time where any observer could come into CPAC and think, 'There are a lot of freaking crazy people here!’,” said a public affairs expert who has been attending CPACs for 16 years who asked not to be named because he did not want to annoy his clients.  

"CPAC used to be a relatively family gathering," he said. But in the last few years, it has become "a much more public face of conservatism. And the people that definitely seemed out of the mainstream have tended to cause a little bit of heartburn because every reporter that comes in looks for the craziest person they can find and says, 'Oh my god! Here's the face of CPAC.'" stilt-walker Stilt-walker Joshua Longshore of Brooklyn, New York sports a former President Ronald Reagan sign Mike Theiler/Reuters

Every year CPAC gets bigger. In 2013, the conference migrated from Washington, D.C. to the Maryland suburb of National Harbor, where attendees fan out across the expansive Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. This year, the number of attendees is expected to hit 11,000. In the exhibition hall, where groups set up booths and invite attendees to join their particular cause, has a distinctly more corporate feel than even a few years ago.

Fringe conservative groups like the National Organization for Marriage or the Ayn Rand Institute still set up shop. But they are now joined by companies like Inbox First, an email delivery service that serves largely conservative clients, and Javelin, a communications, publishing and public relations firm. CPAC buttons Political buttons from past presidential campaigns are seen in a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Maryland, March 7, 2014. Mike Theiler/Reuters

There was a booth titled "xbox" with handouts on subjects like "Election Targeting with Microsoft" and "Transforming TV Advertising into Something Extraordinary."

"You would see way more issues or content-based exhibitors, people talking about political philosophy. You might call them conservative firebrand-type people," said the consultant, who used to attend CPAC as one of the exhibitors before joining the corporate world.

This year's conference has shown a more moderate face on issues like criminal justice and marijuana decriminalization. The contentious issue of immigration, in particular, stood out not for the passion with which it is usually debated by conservatives but for being muted and fairly moderate. (Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union which stages CPAC, is pro-reform.)

Though this was not the first time the pro-immigration reform camp has been represented at CPAC, this year's one panel on immigration, titled "Can There be Meaningful Immigration Reform Without Citizenship?" was more about how to get immigration reform right than whether it should happen. Meanwhile, groups that oppose immigration reform complained bitterly to the Washington Post that they had been shut out of the conference. cpac USAF veteran O.P. Ditch of Elkridge, Maryland sports former GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin buttons on his scooter. Mike Theiler/Reuters

Down the street from CPAC, Representative Steve King, R-Iowa, addressed a small crowd on Thursday at a rival event set up by conservatives whose views are not welcome at CPAC, warning that any kind of legalization for the undocumented would destroy the rule of law in America. Just a year ago, King had a prominent speaking slot at CPAC.

"I would say CPAC is more mainstream," said Vanessa McGuigan, a West Virginian who described herself as a conservative Christian who homeschools her children. In her second time at CPAC, McGuigan said she was enjoying the event, but could tell she was one of the more conservative people there.