Two of the GOP's rising stars — Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — will deliver closely watched speeches in the opening hours of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday afternoon. The meeting, coming just months after President Obama thwarted the GOP's effort to retake the White House, is being hailed as a chance for the Right to begin mapping out its strategy for bouncing back. This focus on the future will be evident in the back-to-back speeches by Rubio, a party favorite, and Paul, a libertarian Tea Partier who was seen as a GOP outsider until his recent 13-hour talking filibuster made him something of a political hero. Could CPAC be the chance Paul has been waiting for to go mainstream and establish himself as a frontrunner for the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination?

This event certainly appears tailor-made for the Kentucky libertarian. He and Rubio are already the Senate's highest-profile GOP presidential possibilities, and political handicappers will be hanging on every word in their back-to-back speeches. The "crowd might be more Paul-friendly than a normal Republican crowd," say Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post. "Supporters of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, have regularly flooded CPAC in an effort to win the straw poll," and the younger Paul "will certainly have plenty of devotees in the building." Plus, says Frank James at NPR, the timing couldn't be better for the senator from Kentucky.

Paul, especially, can be expected to get the hero's treatment as he continues to bask in the glow of his widely covered, though ultimately unsuccessful, counterterrorism-drone-inspired Senate filibuster of Obama's CIA nominee, John Brennan, who has since been confirmed. And Paul is popular with the young libertarians who have comprised a significant part of CPAC's attendance in recent years and venerated his father. [NPR]

If nothing else, CPAC will be a chance for Paul to shine. Mainstream Republicans like Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie, both popular East Coast governors who have pushed through conservative policies in states that backed Obama, weren't invited to CPAC this year, notes Alexander Burns at Politico, so the upstarts will have the stage to themselves.

The heroes of the moment are a trio of senators with far fewer substantive accomplishments but a far tighter emotional bond with the GOP base: Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas.

It all amounts to a jarringly rapid turn of events for the GOP's rock stars of 2009, whose off-year victories in competitive gubernatorial elections brought cheer to a dejected Republican Party — and whose accomplishments since taking office set them near the head of the pack of conservatives nationwide. [Politico]

Rand Paul's big problem, though, is the inherent incompatibility of his libertarian views and conservatism on everything from social issues to foreign policy to drug legalization, says Danny Huizinga at The Washington Times. And despite Paul's moment in the spotlight, CPAC is giving more time at the mic to Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and others likely to throw red meat to the Right. So perhaps Paul shouldn't expect too much out of this confab.

Paul's speech at CPAC will likely draw a large crowd and resounding applause, compounded because of his recent filibuster publicity. The overarching conflict between conservatism and libertarianism, however, will take more than 12 hours and 52 minutes to resolve. [Washington Times]