Activists converge on Washington for largest conservative conference in the country

It's February in Washington, which means it's time for the largest annual gathering of Republican activists: The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the ultimate hajj for anyone who ever hung a poster of William F. Buckley in their dorm room or read Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative for fun.

Starting Thursday, thousands from around the country will gather at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in northwest Washington for three days of panels, strategy sessions and booze-filled after-parties. "As I like to say," CPAC's new director Christopher Malagisi told Yahoo News, "we're organizing the vast, right-wing conspiracy."

News is made at CPAC almost every year: In 2008, Mitt Romney announced that he was ending his bid for the White House. Many of the movement's heaviest hitters are scheduled to attend this year, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and three of the four candidates for the Republican presidential nomination--Ron Paul is sticking to campaigning this year. This has major implications for the conference's much-ballyhooed presidential straw poll.

For two consecutive years, Ron Paul has won the straw poll, in part because his campaign has offered free and heavily subsidized conference registrations to students, to the ire of some CPAC officials, who see Paul as an outlier. (Paul turned down an invitation to speak this year, citing his duties on the campaign trail. His son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, is slated to address the conference on Thursday.)

But both the Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, libertarian groups formed after Paul's 2008 run, are skipping CPAC this year. Leaders of the groups told Yahoo News that their most reliable foot soldiers are out on in the states campaigning for Paul and they saw it best to keep them there, rather than pay to organize everyone in Washington.

The lack of Paul supporters could make for a very different dynamic this year.

"I'd be interested to see how much of an effect it does have, because I've certainly felt like the energy and the enthusiasm was on our side," Campaign for Liberty Vice President Matthew Hawes, who won't be attending the conference, told Yahoo News.

Also not in attendance this year is GOProud, a small Washington-based group of gay conservatives whose sponsorship of CPAC last year caused an uproar among some of the more established conservative groups. Several major organizations, including the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation, chose not to participate in the conference at all, and some called for a boycott. At the height of the drama, GOProud executive director Christopher Barron called American Conservative Union board member Cleta Mitchell "a nasty bigot" in an interview, which prompted the CPAC board to ban GOProud from the conference for one year. With GOProud gone, several of the boycotting groups have returned this year.

GOProud's leaders told Yahoo News they're using the money they would have spent during the conference--a sponsorship costs thousands of dollars--on other events around the country, including the International Students for Liberty Conference the week after CPAC and the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. Some of GOProud's board members have secured speaking slots, including Ann Coulter and Grover Norquist. Barron said he's not bothered by the formal exclusion, and isn't entirely sure GOProud will return once the ban is lifted.

Still, this year's conference is not likely to lack in drama. Members of the liberal "Occupy" movement have teamed up with local labor groups to crash the conference. Members of the now-dismantled camp in downtown D.C. reportedly met this week to discuss plans on how to disrupt the event.

CPAC organizers told Yahoo News they were taking extra security precautions in response to the reported threats.

"We are aware Occupy DC and some affiliated groups plan to protest and attempt to disrupt CPAC. It's unfortunate, but expected," ACU spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said. "Credentials will be closely checked."

It wouldn't be the first time likely CPAC attendees have clashed with Occupiers. In November, liberal activists in D.C. staged a protest outside an Americans for Prosperity conference. A handful of liberals and one conservative attendee were injured after demonstrators blocked conference doors and surrounding roads. At a FreedomWorks convention in Denver, many of the same conservative activists who will be at CPAC faced off with liberal protesters and watched--with cameras rolling--as police broke up a local Occupy camp. Given this history, this week's event could amount to some kind of rematch, although details are scant on what exactly is being planned.

For those unable to make the trip, rest assured that every inch of the conference--from the keynote speeches to arguments in the hallway--will be recorded. The conference will be crawling with about 700 credentialed reporters and more than 600 bloggers, most of whom will be ready to brandish their flip-cams and cell phone cameras at any moment.

Yahoo News reporters will be there to cover the conference, so stick around for updates.

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