"There was one clear superstar at the Conservative Political Action Conference," says James Hohmann at Politico: Rand Paul. Fresh off his 13-hour filibuster of President Obama's drone policies, the junior senator from Kentucky "roared into the event with big momentum," then sealed the deal "with a speech that seemed to broaden his support beyond the libertarian set." By the end of CPAC's three days of 70-plus speeches, myriad panel discussions, and lots of conservative glad-handing, '''Stand with Rand' was the event's unofficial slogan, and attendees did so by making him the winner of the presidential straw poll."
"Rand Paul 2016?" asks Michael Falcone at ABC News. Paul's 25 percent of the straw poll vote put him ahead of the other 22 candidates on the ballot, fueling his perceived 2016 presidential aspirations. But fellow 2016 buzz-feeder Sen. Marco Rubio was close behind, with 23 percent; none of the others broke the double-digit barrier. Of course, "like all straw polls, this one was a non-scientific measure of preference, in this case, of 2,930 of the attendees."
That's hardly the only caveat to Paul's win in the "much-hyped straw poll," says Domenico Montanaro at NBC News. More than half of the voters were ages 18 to 25, a higher percentage of college-age activists than usual. And such voters tend to be the libertarian Republicans who supported Paul's father, retired Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and propelled him to CPAC straw poll wins in 2010 and 2011. Besides, let's face it, "this was not a weekend of self-reflection for conservatives," it was three days "of standing by principles, and no one more represents standing by principles than Paul."
Before anyone makes too much of the results, remember that the last person to win the straw poll three years before an open presidential election (no incumbent) was Rudy Giuliani in 2005. While Giuliani led in many national polls, he only won one delegate in the Republican presidential primaries in 2008. And in 2006, the winner was George Allen, the former Virginia governor, who had his 2006 Senate race sunk by his YouTube utterance of "macaca," a term he used to describe a Democratic video tracker. [NBC News]
Sure, "three years before the Iowa caucuses, the CPAC presidential straw poll might have one or few flaws as a predictor of the next GOP nominee," says David Weigel at Slate. But the vote was only one signal that this is increasingly Rand Paul's GOP. Half of attendees seemed "pretty sold on his foreign policy" in general, agreeing that it's time for U.S. allies to defend themselves, and 86 percent are opposed to U.S. drone strikes on U.S. citizens. "That's a libertarian, Old Right leaning base — you'd expect the Paul vote to be higher, even." So maybe "the average CPAC voter wants Paul to keep rewiring the party, and someone with more obvious cross-party appeal to lead it."
In other words, if CPAC "were a papal conclave, black smoke would be billowing from the chimney at the Gaylord Convention Center," says Dana Milbank at The Washington Post. If Republicans were looking for somebody who, "in a puff of white smoke, could lead them to spiritual renewal," they didn't find him (or her). Paul's push for a new Republican leadership went over well, but it also fed into the "clumpy quinoa of self-doubt and the curdled soymilk of recrimination" that accompanied the usual CPAC fare of "red-meat speeches." In fact, "the only possibility that wasn't seriously entertained by the attendees was the most obvious: That the voters aren't buying the conservative policies Republicans have been selling."
Paul may not have made that case, but Rubio did, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. The two young senators were clearly the "hottest conservatives" at CPAC, and they presented very different paths for the GOP. Rubio's speech was practical and designed to appeal to middle-class swing voters. Paul's largely theoretical, defiant "ode to freedom" was devoured by "the mostly college-age, white crowd" at CPAC, but "the risk is that he appeals only to the very same people who are already Republican or libertarian." So we probably don't know yet who won over the weekend, Paul or Rubio. "Where does this leave the party?" Rubin asks.
I believe it will sort itself out in the primary itself.... Rand Paul will go for a libertarian majority, while Marc Rubio will present a pro-life, pro-immigration, domestic reform and internationalist agenda. The candidate who can both win the biggest share of and recruit more supporters to the GOP is the winner.... And in fact I think that is how it will have to work. The Reagan conservative coalition has been shattered and shrunk, and Republicans will figure out what will replace it as they go along it in the next few years.... So 2016 wannabe's get going: Shape your own agenda, find and recruit your own coalition, and determine how you are going to fund it. But don't spend any time trying to be all things to all parts of a coalition that for all intents and purposes no long exists. [Washington Post]