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Annual Conservative Gathering Questions GOP's Direction


If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

As we just heard, longtime Republican Senator Rob Portman's position on gay marriage has evolved. Of course, gay marriage is one of the social issues that was front and center at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference, otherwise known as CPAC. It's the annual gathering of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been at CPAC, and he joins me now. Hi there, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

LYDEN: Glad to have you. Now, these are what would be described as the true believers, conservatives, the hard core even within the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Tell us about the split that has come down on social issues.

GONYEA: And the thing that we often do that we shouldn't do is call this a Republican gathering. Some of them wouldn't even call themselves Republican, but they are conservatives, hence the name, Conservative Political Action Conference. But what do you have? You have libertarians, you have fiscal conservatives, you have deficit hawks, you have defense hawks, and they even have a lot of different ideas of what a conservative is. So we've got the issue of gay marriage that came up this week. It came up...

LYDEN: Because of Senator Portman?

GONYEA: Not just because of Senator Portman. It's something that always gets discussed when you have a gathering like this. But it became kind of a dominant issue because of Senator Portman. And the divide is readily apparent. Libertarians have kind of a, we shouldn't be worrying about that. We have fiscal issues and size of government things we should worry about.

So you have the libertarian traditional conservative divide. You have the divide between young people who are far, far, far more likely to support gay marriage than older people. And there are a lot of young people at CPAC because college Republicans from all over the country come in. So you have this issue playing out, and it is just another example of how it is impossible to really define what is a conservative in America today.

LYDEN: So in terms of star power, a lot of wattage, people taking the podium included Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and they're there to get the crowd riled up. So pageantry, what does it tell us about where the party's headed?

GONYEA: Well, somebody like Sarah Palin is there as like a motivational speaker, as an icon, and she's clearly feeling good about where she is in that role. She had a shout-out to college students. She said, we're thrilled you're here, but guess what, you better spend more time thinking about Sam Adams than you are drinking Sam Adams. So you - the pageantry is part of it, but they want the fun to be mixed in with panels and serious ideas and, in this case this year, some soul searching about what maybe happened in the last election and how they do move forward.

LYDEN: And also Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, he gave a speech last night that you say was kind of a Sister Souljah moment. Let's hear a little bit from that.

JEB BUSH: In our country today, if you're born poor, if your parents didn't go to college, if you don't know your father, if English isn't spoken at your home, then the odds are stacked against you. You're more likely to stay poor today than in any time since World War II.

LYDEN: So how was Jeb Bush received?

GONYEA: It's interesting. He spoke for 19 minutes, which is short, but he seemed like he really wanted to just kind of speak truth to the base. And there was polite applause at the end. There was no standing ovation. So you try to read the tea leaves, hard to say at this point, but not an overwhelmingly positive response.

LYDEN: NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea just got back from the Conservative Political Action Conference. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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