CPAC: Notes from a Young Conservative Conference

It's 9:15 a.m. on Friday morning. Most college students across America are still hitting the snooze button. But here, in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., thousands of young people are standing and cheering for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Some people call this the conservative spring break," said the 67-year-old senator from Kentucky.

I am at the second day of the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The conference, which began in 1973, is hosted by the American Conservative Union. This year's events are anticipated to draw some 9,000 people, up from 7,000 last year, which would make this the largest CPAC in history. The series of lectures, panels, film screenings and receptions is ground zero for young conservatives. While Obama claims the majority of hearts and minds at many universities, here the fashion du jour includes PRESERVE TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE stickers and DON'T BLAME ME—I VOTED FOR SARAH! tote bags. They've come from all over America to listen to the likes of Ann Coulter, Mitt Romney and Rush Limbaugh sing the praises of conservatism and set the Republican Party's agenda for the coming years.

At CPAC, 19-year-olds unironically wear bowties and snap photos with their cell phones of Rep. John Boehner and former governor Mike Huckabee, as if they were prepubescent girls at a Jonas Brothers concert. In droves, college students attend panels like "Al Franken and ACORN: How Liberals Are Destroying the American Election System," and, a rebuttal to a recent NEWSWEEK cover story, "Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?"

Over half of the conference's registrants are college students. Although many of the conference's speakers and attendees noted that this statistic was a happy surprise, the overwhelming presence of young people is no accident. The event's Facebook group boasts 2,886 members. Special students-only events, including a reception with Karl Rove, pepper the weekend's agenda. CPAC offered heavily discounted student rates and scholarships to attract young conservatives to the conference.

With the Republicans soundly defeated in both Congress and the White House last November and Obama approval ratings maintaining impressive heights, the party has appeared weak and divided. However, the conservative coalition at CPAC is both boisterous and united, and none are more enthusiastic about the party's future than its youngest members.

"We're coming up," said CPAC attendee Olivia Offner, 21. "We're not the candidates, but we're the speechwriters, the campaign staffers, the journalists."

On Friday, the biggest star is none other than Newt Gingrich, a man who rose to political heights when much of today's audience (myself included) was still in kindergarten. Before delivering a 45-minute speech addressing the budget, national security and the future of the Republican Party, Gingrich entered the ballroom down its center aisle, shaking hands with hundreds who leaped out of their seats to literally rub elbows with the former Speaker of the House. Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" blared from the speakers. "This is the largest, most enthusiastic CPAC in history," said Gingrich, and the crowd roared.

Downstairs, in a subterranean exhibition room, dozens of organizations set up booths and passed out pamphlets on everything from public-policy graduate programs to the Freedom Doctrine. "I'm happy to see young people are so interested in conservative issues," said Zaid Abuhouram, a 19-year-old who worked at the booth for Young Americans for Liberty, a continuation of the group Students for Ron Paul.

Tim Schumann, 24, agreed, and cited Ron Paul's Friday afternoon speech as one of the hottest events CPAC had to offer. "No one else [but Ron Paul] is principled," he said. "Everyone's here, cheering for the House leadership for voting against the stimulus. But where were they for eight years?"

Contempt for the Bush years is palpable, but the overall message of the weekend is a move forward. And if the enthusiasm of CPAC's collegiate base has anything to say about it, this move will happen quickly and decisively. "I thought this would be an older audience," Offner said of CPAC. "But not only are these students Republicans, they're real conservatives. I think that's why everyone is so excited—it's about reclaiming the party. This is our responsibility"

As I exit the hotel for the day, I am handed a flier for a free happy hour called "The Shots of Freedom," sponsored by a group called Students for Saving Social Security. Maybe this really is spring break for college Republicans.