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Posted at 7:21 AM ET, 02/10/2011

What to watch for at CPAC

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake

The Conservative Political Action Conference -- a sort of unofficial kickoff to the 2012 presidential race -- opens today in Washington, D.C.

The three-day gathering will feature speeches by seven men and one woman -- Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- in various stages of deciding about presidential runs.

Our guide on a few things to watch for at the three-day extravaganza is after the jump. And make sure to bookmark our live blog page for all the latest and greatest from CPAC.

* The Twin Audiences: CPAC speeches are a strange bird. They are, in part, aimed at conservative activists in the room who tend to react with wild applause when a piece of rhetorical red meat is thrown their way. But, the speeches are also aimed, in part, at the reporters in attendance -- the men and women who cover this stuff at the granular level and who play a part in whether a candidate comes out of the conference with momentum (or not). For the top-tier candidates, it's a delicate balancing act between giving the people what they want -- literally -- and making sure they come off as a serious voice who could lead the country.

* The Straw Poll Dance: Everyone knows the straw poll conducted at CPAC means even less than most straw polls. Former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) won the 2007 AND 2008 CPAC straw poll but still couldn't beat out Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2010, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) won the straw poll at CPAC -- exposing it as something slightly less than an accurate gauge of who might win the nod in 2012. And yet, despite all of that, there will be spin galore once the straw poll is announced. While the straw poll may matter slightly more this year -- with Republican activists more engaged in the race -- than in 2010, it ultimately is a barometer of not all that much.

* My Man Mitch?: Of the eight speeches, none will draw more attention than the one Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will deliver tomorrow. Not only will Daniels be speaking at 7:30 pm -- a spot likely to draw a large audience -- but he will also have to deal with the fallout from his past calls for a "truce" on social issues. CPAC attendees are vocal -- both for those they like and those they don't -- so Daniels will need to be at his best to win over what almost certainly will be a skeptical crowd. Add to all of that drama that some Daniels allies are promising a major speech -- and perhaps some indication of whether he plans to run -- and all eyes will be on the man they call "The Blade."

* Star Watch 2016 (and beyond): While the focus of most activists and reporters will be on the eight candidates in attendance looking at the 2012 race, there are any number of politicians on the speaking docket who could well be the stars of the future for the party. South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan speak on Thursday; both are seen as rising stars within the party and could further boost that status with a strong performance. Others worth watching: Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Friday) and Florida Rep. Connie Mack (Saturday).

Romney changes his book: Former Massachusetts governor and likely presidential contender Mitt Romney made significant changes in a new paperback version of his book, "No Apologies." Among the differences between the new version and the last one are Romney's thoughts on the stimulus package and President Obama's health care bill

The new version is tougher on the stimulus program and seeks to create a little more distance between Obama's bill and the health care bill Massachusetts passed under Romney.

On the stimulus, Romney moves from saying it wasn't as good as it could have been to calling it a "failure." On health care, he places much more emphasis on decrying Obama's bill, rather than trying to differentiate his bill from Obama's.

Romney has also added sections blaming the state legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick (D) for how the Massachusetts bill has panned out.

The subtitle, of course, has also changed, from "The Case for American Greatness" to "Believe in America."

The changes pretty well reflect evolving strategies for Romney, who has to deal with comparisons between his health care bill and Obama's. Romney's move toward more red meat rhetoric also reflect the changing times in the Republican Party.

Kaine mum on bid for Webb's seat: Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine appears to be leaving his options open when it comes to running for retiring Sen. Jim Webb's (D) seat.

Following Webb's announcement, everyone was asking what Kaine might do, as he's the clear second option for Virginia Democrats. Instead of shooting down that speculation, though, DNC aides pointed to a bland statement from Kaine praising Webb.

Prior to Webb's departure, Kaine played off the talk by saying he already had a job to do and that he planned on supporting Webb. But even that wasn't a total denial.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said Wednesday that Kaine would be the party's strongest candidate. Beyond that, Moran said Demcorats could turn to former Rep. Tom Perriello and then former Rep. Rick Boucher.

Handicapping the race for Lee's seat: Following Rep. Chris Lee's (R-N.Y.) stunning and rapid fall from grace Wednesday afternoon, we're expecting a relatively quick special election to fill his now-vacant western New York district.

Republicans will be favored to hold the seat, but Democrats have tried to compete there before, coming close to winning in 2006 and putting some money into an open seat race (when Lee first won) in 2008.

Past Democratic candidates include 2008 nominee Alice Kryzan, Iraq veteran Jonathan Powers and businessman Jack Davis, who won the nod in 2004 and 2006.

On the GOP side, the seat's former occupant, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) told The Fix Wednesday that state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin is being mentioned as a potential candidate.

The nominating process in New York special elections is done by a weighted vote of Republican leaders from the seven counties in the 26th district. Many candidates are expected to pitch their case.


Sarah Palin and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) are starting to mix it up.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) promises to turn heads with his fundraising ability if he runs for president.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has hired a campaign manager -- longtime aide Paul Johnson -- and is "leaning toward running."

People are happy in New Jersey. In a new Quinnipiac poll, Gov. Chris Christie (R) gets good reviews for his first year in office, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D) has his best approval ratings ever.

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's (D) lead in the Chicago mayor's race is only getting bigger.

The Justice Department has green-lighted California's new citizens redistricting commission. (For more on this, check out our recent "Mapping the Future" item.)


"Between Bachmann and Pawlenty, too many Minnesotans for 2012 presidential race?" -- Brian Bakst, AP

"Huckabee winds down '08 campaaign" -- Maggie Haberman, Politico

"Republicans in House battle turmoil in their ranks" -- Carl Hulse, New York Times

"Webb's decision to retire surprised few who knew him best" -- Christian Davenport and Anita Kumar, Washington Post

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake  | February 10, 2011; 7:21 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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Next: Bachmann kicks off CPAC with call for conservatives to unify

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