Why CPAC Matters

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There are few known 2011 events that will invariably have an impact on who the Republican Party will nominate to face Barack Obama.

The CPAC confab, running Thursday through Saturday in DC, is one such event.

1. How do Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour fare?

By entering the race, either man could become the instant Establishment alternative to Mitt Romney. Neither is all in (although Barbour and his aides so far are doing a lot more than Daniels to test the waters), and neither has ever road tested a potential national message in front of such a high-profile audience—the ballroom will be filled with conservative activists and observed by much of the nation’s political press corps. Watch closely to see how each prepares for the occasion, in terms of speechwriting and rehearsal. Barbour and Daniels are both savvy enough to know that a boffo perf this weekend would open up a much wider path for a run. Both also have to figure out how to spin what are expected to be lackluster straw poll showings.

2. Who fills the Mike Pence slot?

Now that the firebrand Indiana congressman has decided to take a pass on a 2012 presidential run, there is room in the nominating fight for a social conservative who can articulate the right’s mission with passion and clarity. Several CPAC speakers have the sparks to become a shooting star by Saturday night and get the tongues wagging. Look for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum to reach high for the skies.

3. Does Romney consolidate his support or sully his lead?

This is not the best venue for the current frontrunner – it includes plenty of audience members who have built-in skepticism about the former Massachusetts governor, and a format that requires the kind of tub-thumping rah-rah speechifying that isn’t Romney’s forte. He also has to decide how directly he addresses his support for the health care measure he signed into law as governor that contains an individual mandate similar to the one backed by Barack Obama – and hated by conservatives. If Romney shows up relaxed and primed, he could leave town with his frontrunner status enhanced. If he delivers a bad performance, the cries of “anyone but Mitt” will be deafening.

4. Where is Mike Huckabee?

Sarah Palin’s decision to skip the meeting has caused a fuss, but the absence of the man who won the Iowa caucuses four years ago and who leads in many national polls is in some ways the more significant factor. Social conservatives will likely forgive the former Arkansas governor’s truancy, and it might just be a move that proves again that Huckabee is crazy like a Fox (TV host). Keeping himself separate from the cattle-call proceedings allows him to hover above the crowded field, maintain his jovial air of mystery, and preserve the option of a last-minute entry into the race.

5. Who can win a general election?

By this point in their respective presidential cycles, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were all delivering stump speeches that revved up the party base but underlined their general election messages. The impulse for many (read: most or all) of the potential candidates speaking at CPAC will be to throw red-meat line after red-meat line to the right-leaning crowd in the room. Barbour and Daniels and Newt Gingrich are perhaps the most likely to pull a semi-Sister Soulja and tell Republicans implicitly, I’m a conservative, but for our party to win in November 2012, we have to appeal to independents and moderates.

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