- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2015

From the stage to the schedule, there’s something palpably different about this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Sure, there are still plenty of big names planned for the main stage and enough hoopla to create a political Super Bowl atmosphere in Washington.

But organizers of the 2015 event that opens Wednesday at National Harbor Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center are executing what they hope will be a “back to the future” strategy that recaptures the intimacy and focus on activism from the early days of CPAC four decades ago.

The stage is designed to put big-name speakers closer to the audience so they can answer questions. The first day of the event is dominated by an activism “boot camp.” Breakout sessions the rest of the week aim to give the thousands of conservatives in attendance specific training, right down to PowerPoint slides and handouts they can take home with them.

“When it first started it was in a small room, probably a couple hundred people. I’ve had some people tell me it was pretty small. It was intimate. And now we’re big. It’s hard to be intimate when you’re big. We’re trying to recapture that intimacy,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC.

ACU Executive Director Dan Schneider’s mantra to staff crafting the agenda has been clear: “Really make a difference.

“Just having a nice conference where people can have fun and can network with each other has value. It’s a very good thing when conservatives can come together from around the country and interact with each other and be reminded that there are others who care deeply about the future of our nation,” he said. “But while we’ve got all these people at this conference, this is a golden opportunity to make sure that they are better citizens, better activists and strengthened to make real change in a positive direction.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Duck Dynasty’ star Phil Robertson to receive CPAC free-speech award

This is the first full year that Mr. Schlapp and Mr. Schneider have put their imprint on CPAC. Both were brought in last year as part of a leadership overhaul at ACU designed to prepare the group to serve a new generation of conservatives.

After last year’s conference, which focused on campaignlike speeches from Donald Trump, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz followed by topical panels, ACU organizers surveyed conference attendees and found that while many enjoyed CPAC, hardly anyone could describe what they learned during the conference.

“What we have done this year is designed the program to enhance the experience for the activist. They’re our customer,” Mr. Schlapp said.

So CPAC’s leadership set three goals for the 2015 event.

“We want to deepen and broaden the base of knowledge of our attendees. We want to equip the attendees with skills so they can become better activists, and we want to genuinely motivate them to use those new skills and the new knowledge to change America and restore freedom,” Mr. Schneider said.

While big speakers like Sen. Marco Rubio, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will be the main attractions, those speeches will be more topic-focused and each speaker will take questions from the audience, making them more accessible to activists.

The stage is designed to contribute to the more intimate atmosphere. Speakers will stand at the end of a long runway that stretches to the center of the room, surrounded by the audience.

“We have to deal with the architecture of the room, and it has a big built-in stage, and what we’ve tried to do is diminish that and have the speakers come out,” Mr. Schlapp said. “The goal is, you know, if you were to have a town hall meeting or come to a community that you grew up in to hear these people speak, what would be the venue? It would be something where you would feel like you can reach out and touch them, and we want to do the same thing. It’s symbolic, but it’s also real in that we believe that these activists should be able to have a lot more interaction with the speakers.”

Following each speech on the main stage, there will be PowerPoint slides with main takeaways from the speech and suggestions on how to get involved in activism.

“You can inspire an activist to really want to throw themselves into something. That is a magical thing. We’ve just got to make sure that a lot of time doesn’t elapse between that magic and when they sign up and start implementing,” Mr. Schlapp said.

The Washington Times is a sponsor of CPAC, and this year the newspaper will showcase some of its reporting experts on topical panels, plus host its own panel discussion Thursday on the impact of regulations on innovation and freedom. The newspaper also is hosting its second annual Washington Times Idol competition on the main stage where 10 aspiring journalists from the National Journalism Center interview major newsmakers, get graded by celebrity journalist judges and compete for an all-expenses-paid internship at The Times this summer.

While topic-focused panel discussions have been staples at CPAC for years, this time organizers have planned more breakout panels that take the bigger panel discussions and break them down further into focused lectures with two or three speakers.

“I don’t think we want to take away the entertainment value, the idea that people get enthused. We don’t want to lose that, but we want to make sure that these activists from around the country get a change to dig in a little bit on some of these issues that they care about. We hope we strike the right balance,” Mr. Schlapp said.

The education and training won’t stop once CPAC ends. Organizers at the ACU have been ramping up their own offerings and policy centers to make CPAC a year-round resource for conservatives.

“Our internal vision is ‘CPAC 365.’ Imagine not just having a great conference over the course of these three days, but what happens on the other days of the year?” Mr. Schlapp said, adding that the ACU has already started ramping up its policy process and getting into contact with scholars and specialists to keep the CPAC conversation going.

“This conference is bigger and more impactful than ever, both on the activism side and on the knowledge side,” Mr. Schneider said.

For conservatives just passing through who might not have time to see all of the offerings at this year’s CPAC, Mr. Schlapp said, just walking around and taking in the energy that CPAC generates is inspiring.

“It’s inspiring, in a time when we’re told that conservatives skew older and Republicans skew older and we’re not hip and we’re not now. When you walk around CPAC, it skews younger conservatives from all stripes and walks of life and it really is inspiring. It reminds us all that we’re not alone, we’ve got a lot of allies, including some colorful allies, and there’s a lot of people in this country that want to get the country on the right direction. To me, that’s so hopeful,” he said.

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