(CBS NEWS) -- Sarah Palin, evidently for some, is still considered the "future" of the conservative movement.
of her address Saturday to the Conservative Political Action Conference
(CPAC), which kicks off today at Maryland's National Harbor, the
likeness of the 2008 vice presidential nominee sits emblazoned atop the homepage
of the convention's website, surrounded by similar busts of Sens. Marco
Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Block
text above them reads: "America's Future: The Next Generation of
WATCH: Live Video from CPAC 2013
It's curious company for Palin, who
for four years has wandered on and off the national stage in
controversial bursts, encouraging conservatives to "reload" against
Democrats as well as some within their own ilk and accusing President
Obama of "palling around" with domestic terrorists. Several months ago,
the former Alaska governor's stardom seemed all but dead: On the first
night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last fall,
she was serving baked beans at an Arizona barbecue dive; in January, Fox News cut its ties with her.
Now she's on tap to speak at arguably the most who's-who affair in conservative politics.
a roster boasting a flurry of likely 2016 contenders - Rubio, Paul and
Ryan, included - where does Sarah Palin fit in? She doesn't, one GOP
strategist said - but neither does Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican
presidential nominee slated to speak Friday afternoon whose "moderate"
platform many Tea Party groups blamed for the ticket's loss in November.
"It's all over the place," longtime GOP consultant Ron
Bonjean said of the speaker lineup. From Palin to Romney to Rubio, he
continued, "CPAC is sending a lot of mixed messages here. I think
[Romney's invitation] was to be nice, but I would guess people would
rather look forward than backward. And every single speaker they choose
is a statement of where they'd like to see the direction of the party
"It's completely confusing," he continued. "But the
disorganization, I think, in some ways is very symbolic of the
Republican Party looking to define itself as it goes through its own
That identity crisis - which since the
formation of the far-right Tea Party in 2009 has gradually inched the
party toward the brink of civil war - is further emphasized by the two
popular Republican governors who didn't make the guest list: New
Jersey's Chris Christie and Virginia's Bob McDonnell.
The snub to Christie, who keynoted the RNC and whose no-nonsense
approach to his state's budget - and basically everything else - has
positioned him as an early frontrunner for 2016, is a "mistake," Bonjean
said. Conference chair Al Cardenas pushed back against Republican
hubbub over the move, arguing
that by signing up with the federal government for Medicaid expansion
and rallying alongside the president for a $60-billion-plus "pork" bill
for superstorm Sandy relief, Christie had not "earned his wings."
felt that Governor Christie, a crowd favorite at previous CPACs, was
not particularly deserving this year," Cardenas wrote to the Washington
Post. "I have said that CPAC is like an 'All Star' game for
conservatives. Even players that have great careers in baseball don't
make it to the All Star game every year. I hope he earns an invitation
next year. But, everyone must keep in mind that we are not the
Republican Party - we are conservatives."
most likely transgression, though Cardenas has not confirmed it, is his
recent support for a transportation package that stipulated a sales tax
hike. Meantime his attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli - a longtime
favorite of the Tea Party - opens CPAC's festivities this morning.
it's not as simple as the Tea Party versus the Republican
establishment, Bonjean said. The number of shades on the conservative
continuum and the subtleness between them show a far more fractured
On the CPAC lineup, Palin, once an electric
trailblazer for the Tea Party, can be lumped not with the far-right
grassroots types, but with firebrands like Donald Trump, the real estate
mogul-turned-reality TV star set to speak Friday morning. "Those
speakers show that the organization is looking to grab sensationalistic
headlines through speakers that will likely say over-the-top statement
in front of hundreds of reporters, rather than have a real, serious
discussion about the direction of the party," Bonjean said.
Then there's Paul, who's expected to sweep the conference's straw poll
in the footsteps left by his likeminded libertarian father, former
Texas Rep. and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. In his first
year in the Senate, the younger Paul founded the Tea Party caucus, a nod
to his hands-off government roots. His nearly 13-hour filibuster
against drone strikes on U.S. soil last week, though, drew praise from Republicans and Democrats across the board who lauded him for returning to regular order on the floor.
there's also the "moderate," "centrist," "evolving" Republicans, like
Romney, but perhaps modeled best by former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who as
expected did not receive an invitation to speak. Unable to find his
footing in the 2012 presidential primary, the pro-civil unions candidate
who believed in climate change - two points he opened with
during an unsuccessful appearance at an election-related Florida CPAC
event - dropped out of the race and levied an unofficial boycott on the
This year, the conference's decision to ban the gay Republican group
GOProud has drawn criticism from conservatives saying the movement is
heading in the wrong direction on social issues.
the countless gradations, though, there's an inarguable divide on
CPAC's agenda between those active and future leaders who have carved
their positions in stone, and those who have made clear their desire to
work toward ending the years-long Washington gridlock.
one side: Former senator and almost-presidential nominee Rick Santorum,
whose willfulness on social issues attracted a following to counter
Romney's momentum; former Rep. Allen West, a Tea Party darling who
campaigned for a recount for weeks after his loss in November; and Jenny
Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots who the day after the
general election lambasted Romney as "a weak moderate candidate,
hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of
the Republican Party."
On the other side: House Majority
Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who recently rallied for a recasting of the
party's image and endorsed immigration principles of the Dream Act;
former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who last summer turned a corner
on "hyper-partisan" politicians and called the GOP "shortsighted;" and
Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., who at a Republican retreat in January said,
"We've got to stop being the stupid party," and called on his fellow
conservatives to start talking "like adults."
Former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., who rushed to condone Jindal's sentiment, told Politico recently there's too much at stake for a badly splintered Republican Party.
all need to be singing from same hymnal," he said. "When the other side
has the megaphone of the White House, it makes it all the more
important that your side sticks together on message and has more message
discipline. We have to have moderate Republicans, conservative
Republicans, neo-con Republicans, Tea Party people all saying, 'Here are
the thing we agree on and that we should emphasize.'"