There's a reason this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., has been called "Mardi Gras for the Right," says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. It's a political party with a little bit of everything: Presidential candidates and big-name conservative speakers, a 2012 straw poll, networking opportunities galore, "C-list celebrities," a conservative dating seminar, and even a Reaganpalooza gala. But of course, the real focus will be the presidential race. Here, five ways the conservative confab could help determine which candidate the splintered Republican Party will send into the ring with President Obama this fall:
1. CPAC gives Romney a chance to cozy up to conservatives
At CPAC four years ago, Romney dropped out of the presidential race and urged conservatives to unite behind John McCain. This year, Romney is McCain — the GOP frontrunner little loved by the conservative base — and after three stinging losses to social conservative Rick Santorum on Tuesday, Romney promised Fox News' Sean Hannity that he will highlight for his "friends at CPAC" his "strong conservative" bona fides on issues like contraception and gay marriage. Of course, say Maggie Haberman and Reid J. Epstein at Politico, Romney's "speech to the red-meat-eating crowd will be among the most anticipated of the three-day event." But Romney must "be careful," says David Frum at The Daily Beast. The more he panders to the CPAC crowd, the more he's "remade into somebody he's not."
2. Santorum could become the ordained anti-Romney
Hot off his Tuesday victories, Santorum has all the CPAC buzz so far, says Hillary Chabot in the Boston Herald. His signature sweater vests are "all the rage," and many conservatives are coming out as Santorum backers, saying they always liked him but only recently became believers that he can actually win. Santorum's wins on Tuesday sure look like "the start of a conservative rallying toward a single candidate," says John Dickerson at Slate. Now he needs to wow the CPAC crowd enough to sideline Newt Gingrich.
3. But Newt has a chance to stop Santorum's momentum
CPAC is also the most likely place for "a Gingrich turnaround," says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post. After his string of losses, the fiery orator needs to use his CPAC speech to "hit the reset button" and prevent Santorum "from dominating the 'conservative alternative' space." Even if Newt can't use CPAC to "reignite the spark that once propelled his campaign," says Slate's Dickerson, he'll keep slogging on. And you never know what might happen: "Gingrich is at his best when people are predicting his doom."
4. The straw poll winner will be showered with attention
Ron Paul, who dominated the CPAC straw poll in each of the past two years, is skipping this year's conference to campaign in Maine. And Romney, the winner from 2007 through 2009, is now publicly deriding the straw poll as a meaningless exercise. But political tea-leaf readers certainly won't see it that way, says Tomasky at The Daily Beast. With a looming two-week "hiatus in the GOP primary race," the straw poll will be read as a key thermometer of the conservative mood. Plus, says Maggie Haberman at Politico, the poll is totally "up for grabs." If Santorum can pull off a win, it would "add to the perception that he is galvanizing the base of the party that has not embraced Romney."
5. A Palin endorsement could shake up the race
The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee is making her CPAC debut this year, giving the final speech of the conference Saturday afternoon. She has spoken approvingly of Gingrich in recent weeks, but has yet to endorse any candidate. Palin's "stock in the GOP has obviously declined," says The Washington Post's Weiner. But "she still has a following and could give the struggling [Gingrich] a boost." Yes, but "whether Palin explicitly endorses Gingrich or not," says The Daily Beast's Tomasky, "her speech is sure to be pored over by the national media, practicing a kind of Kremlinology, Wasilla-style, to get hints of her views on the race."