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Will CPAC Tell Us Which Way The GOP Is Headed?

Which way the Republican Party?

In the hope of getting answers to that and other questions, many activists, party big wigs and political journalists have descended on a hotel in a Washington suburb to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, which started Thursday.

This annual CPAC gathering is the first since President Obama thwarted Republican efforts to retake the White House, a defeat of Mitt Romney that many in the GOP didn't see coming.

While there will be some backward glances (at least two panels on the agenda are specifically aimed at understanding what went wrong: "Should We Shoot All the Consultants" and "CSI Washington DC: November 2012 Autopsy"), the conference is mostly supposed to be about finding the way forward.

To that end, the conference theme is "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives. New Challenges, Timeless Principles." True, some of those given prime speaking slots seem to have more to do with the party's past than its future — Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for instance.

Also true is that conference organizers at the American Conservative Union caused no shortage of head scratching with their failure to invite to speak one of their party's most popular politicians — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — while extending an invitation to the inimitable Donald Trump.

But possible future paths for the party will certainly be represented on CPAC's main stage. Republican rising stars like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are likely to get rousing CPAC welcomes for their back-to-back scheduled speeches Thursday afternoon.

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, former Texas congressman Ron Paul.

Meanwhile, sessions on immigration reform and how to better appeal to Latinos clearly show CPAC trying to grapple with the demographic changes in the electorate that worked to Republicans' disadvantage in 2012.

Of course, all of this comes against a backdrop of a party that has been redefined more or less by the emergence of the Tea Party and its primary challenges from the right against more establishment Republicans.

And CPAC also happens in the context of fiscal battles between the GOP and Democrats, with Republicans claiming that the greatest threat to the nation are fiscal deficits and debt. Obama and Democrats see it as just the opposite — poorly timed austerity that slows economic growth.

NPR journalists will be at CPAC trying, like everyone else, to read whatever signals the conference sends about the Republican Party's future.

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