NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND, March 3, 2016 — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off on Thursday morning, but this CPAC was different. As is the tradition, many CPAC activists came in a day early to take part in Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax reform Wednesday meeting. Thursday morning usually means CPAC is the only political story. This year was the exception.
CPAC is still fantastic for those on the right who love policy and politics. It is Disneyland for conservatives. Yet unlike in past years, the start to CPAC 2016 was overshadowed by several major political events.
The first day of CPAC was not without its enjoyable moments. Townhall personality Guy Benson is a conservative who happens to be gay. His thoughtful remarks balancing traditional values with changing attitudes on gay marriage were well received. He also clearly delineated why it was easier to come together on gay marriage than abortion, since abortion involves a third potential human life.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan remains a rock star. CPAC was supposed to be a place where any conservative deemed part of the establishment would be booed. This crowd of very conservative activists gave Ryan a loud, sustained ovation. Levity ensued when the moderator insisted on playfully criticizing Ryan’s winter beard, which he has since shaved. He grows the beard for deer season, as anyone in Wisconsin knows.
A new generation of activists came to discuss everything from political strategy to social media. Turning Point USA is training young activists to take back the college campuses from the left. They sent 300 young people to CPAC. As always, the Citadel sent many Cadets to CPAC.
Yet this CPAC faced stiff competition from outside political events.
On Wednesday, the screws began to tighten around Hillary Clinton. The investigation into her private server has given republicans many false hopes, but now a real bombshell did drop. The FBI granted full immunity to Bryan Pagliano, the Clinton staffer who originally set up the server. Immunity means Magliano must testify. He can no longer invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This is clearly a domino falling.
In other server news, the final batch of Clinton emails were just released. It seems Hillary used her insecure server to discuss sensitive issues such as North Korea and Benghazi. She even discussed the location of Ambassador Chris Stevens. This means that anyone who hacked her server would have known where Stevens would be. Hillary Clinton did get her employees killed.
On the Republican side, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney held a press conference in Utah where he blasted businessman and 2016 GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. Romney did not enter the race himself or make an endorsement. He stated that Trump is a fraud who must be stopped. Trump responded ferociously, and many Republicans wondered why Romney never took this tough line with President Obama in 2012 or with Hillary Clinton. Trump may be brash, but Romney’s excessive politeness in the face of Obama attacks played a role in Republicans losing in 2012.
On top of all of this, Republicans held another presidential debate. The first debate after Super Tuesday featured Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Retired Neurosurgeon Ben Carson has not officially dropped out of the race, but he did skip this debate. Mired in single digits, Carson is expected to drop out in a Friday speech to CPAC.
The debate featured fireworks. Unlike some of the past debates, this one had a clear winner.
Cruz — He hammered Trump mercilessly, getting in the last word more often than not. Yet it was a policy issue that was his shining moment. When the candidates were asked about Detroit’s failures, only Cruz mentioned that 60 years of left-wing control had destroyed the city of Motown and the Big Three automakers. The crowd roared with approval. Grade: A+
Kasich — He had a good night, showing his compassionate side without being preachy. When given a chance to attack Trump, he said, “I’m not biting.” Kasich stuck to policy, although the reason he is never attacked is because he is lightly regarded and down in the polls. Nevertheless, he had a good night. Grade: A—
Rubio — He also went toe to toe with Trump, but had less success than Cruz did. One great moment came after Trump kept saying how flexible he was. Rubio joked that they should all relax and do yoga on stage. When Cruz remarked that nobody would be doing yoga, Rubio chimed that Trump could because he is flexible. The crowd laughed, but Rubio did not get the knockout blow he needed. His campaign is fighting for political survival in Florida, and Rubio has only one more debate before the March 15 Florida primary to take Trump down. Grade: B
Trump — He did well on Super Tuesday, but Rubio and Cruz beat him up so badly in the days before those contests that it may have prevented him from putting the race away. This time he took a beating for his involvement in Trump University. He is currently facing accusations of fraud. Trump tried to dismiss the issue as a civil matter, but Cruz and Rubio drew blood. Trump’s supporters tend to rally around him the more he is attacked, but for undecided voters, Trump had a rough night. Grade: C
Moderators Chris Wallace, Megan Kelly and Bret Baier all had a very good night. Wallace is a bulldog, but he still maintains his dignity and decorum, calling candidates “sir” as he demands they answer his questions. Kelly was crisp, and Baier was his typical polite, friendly but serious self. They were very professional. Unlike the last CNN debate, these moderators reined the candidates in to prevent the debate from descending into silliness. Grade: A
Sean Hannity broadcast live from CPAC after the debate. Glenn Beck did his broadcast before the debate. Both of them brought rock star status to radio row. Yet the one thing missing from CPAC Thursday were political rock stars. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker got the day started with a bang, but he is no longer in the race. On Friday and Saturday, all of the remaining presidential candidates will be embracing the CPAC crowd. Heavy security including Secret Service protection will be the order of the day for Trump’s Friday morning speech. If that does not make liberal ears bleed, legendary conservative blogger Michelle Malkin will be tossing out political red meat.
Like the Thursday night debate, the Clinton server scandal, and Romney’s blistering remarks, CPAC is going to get white hot in the next two days. Thursday was just the warmup.