WASHINGTON If there was any doubt that there is a huge amount of discord within the Republican Party, the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference should put it to rest.
The gathering of the most conservative elements of the GOP featured speaker after speaker picking fights with other Republicans and offering criticisms – sometimes indirect and often direct – of party figures like Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Karl Rove, former president George W. Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Most of the speakers in suburban Washington urged Republicans not to change but rather to double down on conservative principles. They included keynote speaker Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., a leader of the new generation of Republicans whom McCain recently labeled “wacko birds.”
“If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution means you’re a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird,” Cruz said Saturday. “I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”
Cruz also argued that the party’s new generation is starting to gain traction, pointing to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – who had just won the presidential straw poll – and his 13-hour filibuster this month against President Barack Obama’s drone program, along with the spending cuts contained in the sequester that took effect at the start of the month.
“For the last three weeks, conservatives have been winning,” Cruz said.
The discord, while nothing new for the party, is particularly noteworthy as it seeks its way forward after a disappointing 2012 election.
Republican officials unhappy with their losses have begun to push for a new core message and changes or moderation on social issues and illegal immigration.
Two recent events have inflamed that debate. First was the launch of a new group headed by Rove that seeks to recruit and nominate more electable Republican candidates, which conservatives see as a veiled attempt to elect less-conservative Republicans. Second was Paul’s filibuster, which earned the ire of foreign policy hawks like McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
McCain has since apologized for his “wacko birds” comment, but he was booed several times at CPAC.
The speakers at CPAC were united against the McCain and Rove element in the party, picking on them repeatedly and suggesting that conservative principles would win the day if the party stuck with them.
Former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was direct, suggesting Rove head back to Texas, where he helped launched George W. Bush’s political career.
“The last thing we need is Washington, D.C., vetting our candidates,” Palin said. “The architects can head on back to the Lone Star State and put their names on some ballot.”
While Cruz was the keynote speaker, Palin riled the crowd up more than anybody, delivering a blistering attack on Obama with a string of one-liners.
“Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Barack Obama: You lie!” she said, alluding to the 2009 incident in which South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson yelled “you lie” at Obama during a speech before Congress.
Paul’s victory in the straw poll was widely expected, especially given his father’s past successes in the CPAC straw poll. Former congressman Ron Paul, R-Tex., regularly attracted huge crowds of devoted supporters at CPAC and won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011.
Mitt Romney won it last year, when Ron Paul did not attend the conference.