A reporters asks CPAC attendees to pick their favorite candidate, in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME
By Zeke J Miller and Alex Altman
February 26, 2015

The conservative grassroots will gather by the thousands just outside of Washington, D.C., on Thursday for the annual ritual known as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Part political rally, part marketing bonanza and part youth bacchanal, the event is one of the few in which the far-flung factions of the party come together for a three-day blitz of speeches, panels and policy sessions.

For movement outsiders and American voters, the conference offers a compressed glimpse of the conservative zeitgeist, and a platform for the party’s presidential candidates to rouse the faithful in the coming campaign. Here are four story lines to watch as the event kicks off:

How will Chris Christie and Jeb Bush be received?
The party’s two establishment-backed candidates have been warmly received at CPAC before, but the knives may come out now that their all-but-certain presidential campaigns have attracted the money and muscle of the Acela corridor elites that the grassroots distrusts.

Both candidates will be interviewed by conservative broadcast personalities — Bush by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and Christie by radio host Laura Ingraham. Bush is out to show that the “moderate” moniker he’s been tagged with by opponents is inaccurate, and will try to steer the conversation to the conservative record he compiled as the two-term governor of Florida. Christie, meanwhile, will have to defuse questions over his temperament while addressing his complicated fiscal record in his state.

How has the media onslaught affected Scott Walker?
In recent weeks, the Wisconsin governor has been embroiled in a controversy over President Obama’s patriotism and faith, but the media-driven debate may only have bolstered his standing with the conservative grassroots. Walker’s well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January propelled him to the top of the (largely meaningless) early primary polls. Can he summon the same magic far from the heartland? Another strong showing would help shore up Walker’s support as he battles establishment competitors in the race to vacuum up the party’s top bundlers and operatives. A weak showing would reinforce the emerging narrative that the Wisconsinite may not be ready for gauntlet of a national campaign.

Where is the party on foreign policy?
The GOP’s isolationist and neocon wings will share the same stage this weekend, as Congress debates a war resolution against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) as well as President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. A public spat between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before his visit to Capitol Hill next week is likely to be a topic that plenty of speakers touch upon.

Who will win the straw poll?
The conference is capped by a candidate straw poll, which for two years running has been captured by Kentucky Senator and presumptive presidential candidate Rand Paul, who tends to play well among younger activists. The results have never augured much, given that candidates can stack the halls with their supporters by hawking discount tickets (which are required to vote) and swag giveaways. But even if imperfect, it’s still a measure for gauging who’s rallying the right.

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