Five things to watch for at CPAC

Five things to watch for at CPAC
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Conservatives from across the country will meet outside Washington later this week for the right’s premiere annual event: the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The American Conservative Union’s 45-year-old gathering, which will run from Thursday to Saturday, has long been the biggest game in town for conservatives, bringing thousands of like-minded activists, politicians and strategists all under one roof. 

Now the event’s attendees are looking to grapple with what the conservative agenda should be — and how to achieve those goals in the Trump era.

Here are five things to watch as CPAC kicks off.

Will CPAC become a rally for the Second Amendment?

CPAC organizers say they’re trying to be respectful of the victims of last week’s deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. But they also know their audience: fervent defenders of the Second Amendment.

Organizers will have to walk a tightrope at this year’s conference, ensuring that gun rights advocates have a platform to voice opposition to gun control even amid a growing national discussion about gun violence. 

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre will speak during the three-day conference, just as he has at every recent CPAC, an NRA spokesman confirmed. 

But CPAC organizers kept LaPierre’s name off the schedule of speakers that was published at the start of the week. While CPAC hasn’t said why, obscuring when he speaks would make it harder for pro-gun control activists to protest the speech. 

It’s unclear at this point when exactly LaPierre will take the stage. But the conference is coinciding with a number of anti-gun violence protests around the country, from Florida to Washington, D.C.

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On Wednesday, high school students in Maryland walked out of class and marched to the U.S. Capitol to demand Congress act on gun control measures.    

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsHouse Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a CPAC speaker scheduled to take the stage just before President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE, said he believes attendees do want to find ways to stop violence in schools.

“I think the majority of the people I talk to are in a very somber mood and want to take the appropriate actions that will help our students learn in a safe environment,” Meadows told The Hill.

How much will conservatives attack the special counsel investigation?

The CPAC schedule is filled with events aimed at special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. 

There’s a Thursday session titled “What You Don’t Know about the ‘Dirty Dossier,’ Trump, and Russia,” where attendees can hear from conservative writer Steven J. Allen about how the Russia probe “remains unsubstantiated.”

At the “#TrumpedUp: Unmasking the Deep State” panel, conservative pundits including the Washington Examiner’s Byron York and frequent Sean Hannity guest Sara Carter will discuss what they see as a “deep state” — the FBI and other government officials — that they claim is seeking to destroy Trump and his allies.

The panel will be followed by a speech by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesDemocrats' opposition research got exposed — this time, not by the Russians GOP consultant sued by Nunes asks for help paying legal costs Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data MORE (R-Calif.), a Trump loyalist whose team authored a now-infamous GOP memo that Democrats view as a blatant effort to undermine Mueller’s Russia probe 

CPAC attendees will also hear from a host of other Trump defenders who’ve railed on cable TV against the Russia probe, including former White House aide Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaGorka criticizes reporter after heated Rose Garden exchange Trump declares Gorka 'wins big' after clash with reporters in Rose Garden Trump social media summit attendees clash with reporters in Rose Garden MORE, Eric TrumpEric Frederick TrumpTrump Jr. blasts reports of Kushner feud: 'More fake news bulls---' Chicago mayor says waitress crossed 'the line' by spitting on Eric Trump Live coverage: Democrats face off in first 2020 debate MORE, and prominent conservative media figures Hannity and Mark Levin.  

Judge Jeanine Pirro, a close Trump friend who’s used her show on Fox News to attack Mueller, will be the keynote speaker during the Ronald Reagan Dinner on Saturday night. 

“Robert Mueller is looking for people with an agenda against Donald Trump. Robert Mueller is the person who should be being investigated,” Pirro told Hannity last week on Fox.

What do conservatives want to see in the midterm elections?

Uncertainty about the 2018 midterms will hang over CPAC, with total Republican control of Congress on the line in November.

Republicans need to maximize turnout among their activist base in the fall if they’re going to keep up with a newly energized Democratic grass roots. But the party also needs to find a way to shore up its standing with independents, who polls show have been turned off by Trump and the GOP legislative agenda. 

Expect a healthy dose of praise at CPAC for the GOP’s recent tax-reform plan. Republicans believe that legislation holds the ticket to stemming any anti-Trump exodus from the party and keeping moderates who see their paychecks going up on their side.

The main stage at CPAC will include a panel titled “One Man’s ‘Crumbs,’” a reference to House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Trump: I don't have a racist bone in my body Ocasio-Cortez responds to fresh criticism from Trump MORE’s (D-Calif.) claim that the tax law only provides the middle class with “crumbs” when compared to its benefits for the wealthy and big businesses. Republicans have been eager to seize on the “crumbs” remark as proof that Pelosi and other Democrats are out of touch. 

Additional CPAC events emphasize other Trump administration decisions that conservatives believe aren’t getting enough play in the news — including government regulation cuts and the overhaul of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. 

Will anyone criticize Trump?

The battle for the Republican Party has continued into the Trump presidency, prompting sharp comments and even retirements fromTrump critics in Congress.

But that dynamic is unlikely to be on display at CPAC, where it’s clear that the GOP is Trump’s party.

After being booed at CPAC in 2015, Trump skipped the event in 2016, only to return to applause shortly after his inauguration in 2017.

Expect the pro-Trump feeling to continue this year. Several events celebrate Trump’s impact on the GOP, including panels like “The Trump Effect on American Politics” with Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany and “We Refuse to be Suckers: The New Trump Doctrine.”

Along with speeches from Trump and Vice President Pence, the White House will also send a handful of top aides. White House counsel Don McGahn and White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet George Conway calls Trump a 'racist president' in new op-ed George Conway's group: Trump tweets 'should be rejected by every American' MORE are both scheduled to speak, as are four Cabinet members.

But while the CPAC speaker’s list is filled with Trump loyalists, a speaker or two could still criticize the president. 

How does CPAC react to far-right French politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen?

The most interesting news around CPAC often surrounds who’s invited — and who’s not. 

Religious conservatives and gay Republicans once regularly clashed over whether gay GOP groups should be invited, while conservative British provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos lost a planned CPAC keynote last year after some apparently positive comments about pedophilia from Yiannopoulos resurfaced.

This year, an appearance by French politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has sparked outcry. 

Maréchal-Le Pen is the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the hard-right French nationalist party National Front.

Le Pen and his family became one of the most polarizing figures in French politics for his party’s platform and for comments questioning the Holocaust and disparaging Muslims. More recently, Maréchal-Le Pen’s aunt Marine Le Pen came in second in a bid as the National Front’s candidate for the French presidency.

Prominent establishment conservative have bristled at Maréchal-Le Pen's inclusion, arguing that her identification with the party and her family history sends the wrong message.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review, questioned on Twitter whether she’s a “National Front Kardashian with better messaging.”

But Matt Schlapp, whose organization runs CPAC, has defended Maréchal-Le Pen, arguing on Twitter that she “has moved away from the politics of her forebearers.”