A plethora of potential presidential contenders will descend on Washington over the next three days to state their case to thousands of attendees at CPAC, the American Conservative Union's 38th annual gathering of Republican politicians and conservative activists and thinkers.
While the White House 2012 picture remains remarkably distorted, this three-day event will feature more than a dozen speakers whose names have been mentioned in the presidential conversation. CPAC provides an unparalleled forum for White House aspirants to sell their message -- and themselves -- to some of the most powerful and influential factions of the conservative movement.
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White House hopefuls will swear they aren't working too hard to manipulate CPAC's annual presidential straw poll, the results of which are announced at the end of the weekend's festivities. But behind the scenes, most campaigns are running a somewhat organized drive to secure votes.
Winning the straw poll certainly doesn't guarantee anything -- Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) won it last year and remains a long shot to win the GOP nomination -- but any candidate who wins gets guaranteed press coverage throughout the weekend.
Each speaker will deliver their own distinct message, but with a unifying theme: They will take every opportunity to criticize President Obama. Here's a complete rundown of what to expect from the GOP presidential hopefuls who are speaking this weekend:
THURSDAY, FEB. 10
9:15 a.m. -- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.): It should prove difficult for any speaker to steal the show during this event's maiden address, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Bachmann. Her penchant for fiery prose makes her a natural favorite the CPAC crowd, whose ideological leanings are right in Bachhmann's wheelhouse. Unlike sure-fire presidential hopefuls, Bachmann won't worry about taking risks -- expect nothing less than her customary firebrand rhetoric.
12:30 p.m. -- Former Speaker Newt Gingrich: Expect a little bit of everything when Professor Gingrich steps to the stage: foreign policy, energy independence, fiscal discipline. It won't be accidental: Gingrich wants to portray himself as Obama's most formidable foe by demonstrating an ability to challenge him on a wide range of issues. He'll focus on energy with a renewed call to abolish the EPA; look for him to link that argument to the current Middle Eastern mayhem, making his case for energy independence all the more relevant.
1:45 p.m. -- Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.): Despite being perhaps the most conservative of any potential candidate, Santorum is rarely mentioned in the same breath as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). But their absence from this weekend's festivities provides a priceless opportunity for Santorum to establish himself as a serious contender for the votes of social conservatives, a group he absolutely must own in order to have any shot at winning the GOP nomination.
3:00 p.m. -- Businessman Donald Trump: A last-minute addition to the CPAC roster, "The Donald" has said several times recently that he's mulling a presidential bid, but his decision to address CPAC is the strongest indication yet that Trump is seriously weighing his viability as a presidential contender. Look for him to focus on the lack of "respect" America gets around the world, especially from China, whom Trump will undoubtedly single out as a currency manipulator and global bully.
FRIDAY, FEB. 11
9:30 a.m. -- Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R): After initially being denied a spot in the speaking lineup, the libertarian-leaning Johnson was awarded a last-minute slot to preach his platform of marijuana legalization and ending the drug wars at home and foreign wars abroad. His message will undoubtedly resonate with a chunk of the CPAC crowd, but the majority of conservatives will dismiss his ideology as extreme.
10:30 a.m. -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R): After keeping an extremely low profile in recent months, Romney takes the stage as the vulnerable front-runner with a massive elephant looming in the room. Romney has tiptoed around questions comparing his Massachusetts health care plan to Obama's federal law, and while it's likely that he'll eventually address that issue head-on, don't expect it this weekend. Instead, look for Romney to play it very safe, pounding the themes of "American exceptionalism" and job creation.
1:30 p.m. -- Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.): With his self-imposed decision deadline of month's end closing in, Thune gets to use CPAC as a final test run before concluding whether or not to run for president. A strong speech that generates buzz among the grassroots could tempt the senator to give it a go. But a performance met with anything less than stellar reviews may be enough to convince Thune to keep climbing the Senate leadership ladder and bide his time until 2016.
3:00 p.m. -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R): Of all the speakers, Pawlenty probably has the most to gain from his CPAC appearance. He has labored recently to rid himself of the "nice guy" label, and his efforts have paid off, but he suffers from a perhaps undeserved moderate label because of his home state. This is a great chance to convert the masses. If he maintains his newly discovered aggressiveness while successfully fusing his twin messages of fiscal and social conservatism, Pawlenty could emerge from this weekend with tangible, grassroots-fueled momentum.
3:30 p.m. -- Rep. Ron Paul: The surprise winner of CPAC's 2010 poll, Paul is taking more aggressive steps than we expected, launching a video this week urging his supporters to flood the event and make their voices heard (like they did so successfully last year). Paul is surprisingly serious about taking another stab at the presidency.
4:00 p.m. -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R): Though he's the least likely to run of anyone on this list, calling his current gig "the best job in America," Perry can't seem to shake the speculation that he's quietly positioning himself for a backdoor run. Already beloved by Tea Party types for his strong federalist principles, look for Perry to preach his well-rehearsed sermon of limited government and states' rights.
4:30 p.m. -- Ex-Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain (R): No one, save for perhaps Bachmann, is better suited for this type of event than Cain, a former radio host who became a Tea Party celebrity after headlining dozens of rallies around the country last year. His communication skills and effortless charisma could make him the surprise hit of the weekend. Don't be surprised if he delivers a dynamic speech that results in a strong straw poll showing.
7:30 p.m. -- Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R): Daniels will take the stage with a target on his back as a result of calling for a "truce" on social issues, a remark from which he's refused to backpedal. But Daniels has endeavored lately to remind people that he boasts a spotless pro-life record and is as socially conservative as the next candidate -- a message which, fused with his impeccable fiscal credentials, could do wonders for enhancing his image among the conservative base.
SATURDAY, FEB. 12
9:30 a.m. -- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R): Much like Daniels, Barbour has been accused at times of neglecting social issues. That said, look for Barbour to throw a few bones toward the large contingency of social conservatives while maintaining his focus overwhelmingly on fiscal and foreign policy matters. It's interesting that outgoing CPAC chief David Keene is introducing just two speakers: Bachmann, who opens the conference, and Barbour.
1:00 p.m. -- Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton (R): Perhaps the right's most outspoken critic of Obama's foreign policy, look for Bolton to unleash on the administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt, as well as what he'll likely describe as its timid approach to keeping nuclear weapons away from Iran and its terrorist proxies.
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