Fresh off his filibuster that captured the hearts of libertarian conservatives, Sen. Rand Paul told attendees Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the Republican Party has become "stale" and must return to basic constitutional principles if it wants to ignite a political revolution.
Mr. Paul was the star of the conservative "Facebook generation" youth movement that paraded across CPAC's stage Thursday, joining others such as Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Lee and Tim Scott — all of whom were elected after President George W. Bush left office.
"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," Mr. Paul said. "The new GOP, the GOP that will win again, will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere. If we are going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP."
Like the Republican Party as a whole, the 8,000 conservative activists gathered at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, just outside the Capitol Beltway in Maryland, are debating which direction the GOP should go after a second consecutive presidential defeat.
The title of this year's conference is "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives — New Challenges, Timeless Principles," and from the stage, activists heard a series of speakers who won office in the 2010 and 2012 elections debate what the GOP needs to do to regroup.
Before the conference closes, they will also hear from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, and New York real estate mogul Donald Trump.
Outside the main ballroom, people strolled around the convention halls dressed in colonial regalia, with one person wearing a mascot-style Benjamin Franklin costume. Another was dressed up like the character Bumblebee from the science-fiction series "Transformers." And one man with a thick mustache wore a black cowboy hat and T-shirt that read, "Cops Say Legalize Pot Ask Me Why."
Attendees also rubbed elbows with the likes of National Rifle Association President David A. Keene and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and were treated to movie screenings on the pro-life movement, the debt crisis and the tea party movement.
Back in the hall, they listened to panelists knock around ideas on immigration, talk about the pluses and minuses of military adventurism, and rip the Obama administration's response to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the death of the American ambassador.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who was elected in 2010, celebrated the post-Bush world, thanking the crowd for sending Mr. Lee, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul to Washington along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ted Cruz of Texas.
"Not one of us was there three years ago, and I promise you we are having an impact now," Mr. Toomey said, before crediting the "great new conservative members of the Senate" with persuading the Republican conference to continue a moratorium on earmarks, and for helping to forge a consensus for a balanced-budget amendment. "We have a long way to go, but we are making progress, and just imagine where we will be if we can have 10 more conservatives like these folks."
Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican elected in 2010, tried to bridge the gap between traditional Republican values and reaching out to voters across the ideological spectrum.
"Just because I believe that states have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," Mr. Rubio said, adding that he also believes that "all human life is worthy of protecting at every stage of its development."
Mr. Rubio also repeatedly made light of his reach for bottled water during his State of the Union response speech this year, but there was one subject he didn't touch: immigration.
He is part of a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators working on a bill that would legalize illegal immigrants — something that's been anathema to many Republicans for years, but which party leaders are now saying they'll have to do if they want to remain competitive in national elections.
The first elected official to speak was Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, 44, and others included Mr. Lee of Utah, 41, and Mr. Scott, 47, of South Carolina. Mr. Scott was elected to the House in 2010 and was appointed to fill the seat of former Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned last year to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Mr. DeMint was scheduled to be a featured speaker at the "presidential dinner" — the final event of the evening.
But Mr. Paul, who impressed senators on both sides of the aisle with his recent information-seeking filibuster over the Obama administration's policy on drone strikes, appeared to have the most enthusiastic support in attendance.
"I came with a message — a message for the president," he said. "A message that is loud and clear. A message that doesn't mince words."
"Don't drone me, bro!" shouted one audience member.
"Well," Mr. Paul said with a laugh, "that's not exactly what I was thinking. However, I think he might have distilled my 13-hour speech into three words."
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