What You Need to Know About CPAC

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Photo: Robert Giroux/Getty Images

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is set to take over Washington tomorrow for three days of workshops, panels, speeches, and American flag T-shirts. But not without a gradually increasing level of controversy! Here's what you need to know about the Republican version of Woodstock:

Okay, what happens at CPAC?
Conservative activists and politicians from around the country come together to talk about conservative issues. For a example, this year they have panels like "The Left's Campaign to Reshape the Judiciary" and workshops such as "Want to Get Into Talk Radio?"

And that's it?
Not even close! Over the past half decade or so, CPAC has become a proving ground of sorts for presidential candidates. Among those slated to speak this year are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Mitch Daniels, and Haley Barbour, all of whom are either going to run in 2012 or are at least pretending to think about it.

What about Sarah Palin?
No, not Sarah Palin.

I guess tell me why.
According to Sarah Palin herself, she had "prior obligations." According to sassy potential primary rival Rick Santorum, those other obligations probably have a "financial benefit attached to them." The real reason, though, may be her ongoing feud with CPAC organizer David Keene. This will be the fourth year in a row that Palin hasn't attended, although she appeared via a taped message in 2009.

Will any of the speeches even be interesting?
Most of the speakers will just throw red meat to the conservative crowd — boo Obama, boo socialism, yay America, yay Reagan, etc. — but former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, a staunch libertarian, "plans on advocating legalizing marijuana and gay rights," so that should be fun.

Who else isn't showing up?
Tea party senator Jim DeMint, the Family Research Council, the Concerned Women for America, and National Organization for Marriage are a few of the people and organizations boycotting the event this year over the participation of GOProud, a Republican gay advocacy group.

But they're going to miss the premiere screening of The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks!
Their loss.

Is the anti-gay hysteria the only kind of bigoted hysteria surrounding CPAC this year?
Nope! The right-wing website WorldNetDaily and right-wing columnist Frank Gaffney claim that the event has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, because Suhail Khan, the head of the conservative group Muslims for America, serves on the American Conservative Union board of directors.

What will be the biggest news coming out of CPAC?
Political observers will be looking to see which presidential candidates give the most well-received speeches, particularly second-tier candidates who could gain momentum from a successful appearance. There's also a straw poll on the final day, in which attendees vote on their preferred 2012 nominee. But if last year is any indication, it may go to Ron Paul, which would signal more about the dedication of Paul fans than the Texas congressman's strength as a presidential nominee.

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