By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 6:11 PM
When the crop of potential Republican presidential contenders starts making the rounds Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, two notable names will be absent: former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Both Huckabee and Palin have said that scheduling conflicts made attendance impossible at the conservative movement's biggest party of the year: Huckabee is in Israel until Thursday, and Palin, in an e-mail to The Washington Post last week, said: "February is our busiest winter month and with all the prior obligations and outside travel already scheduled for the month I had to forgo some of the opportunities in the Lower 48."
Those explanations haven't stopped speculation that there are other reasons the two potential contenders won't be in Washington this week to court conservatives. Palin is missing her third CPAC in row - despite being offered the plum gig of keynote speaker during the gathering's homestretch of events Saturday afternoon.
Palin offered support for the CPAC gathering in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network over the weekend, in which she questioned the strategy of groups that chose to boycott CPAC this year because GOProud, a pro-gay rights Republican group, will be there.
"Should the GOP, should conservatives not reach out to others, not participate in events or forums that perhaps arising within those forums are issues that maybe we don't personally agree with?" Palin asked in the interview. "And I say no. It's like you being on a panel, shoot, with a bunch of the liberal folks whom you have been on and you provide good information and balance, and you allow for healthy debate, which is needed in order for people to gather information and make up their own minds about issues."
Neither Palin nor Huckabee has offered much evidence that they're getting closer to an official run for president. Unlike former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (all of whom will speak at CPAC), neither has begun the intense, one-on-one campaigning considered necessary in early states Iowa and New Hampshire. And for Huckabee, CPAC - where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the straw poll in 2007 and 2008 - might not represent friendly territory. That's particularly true this year, when the tea party and other fiscally conservative forces will be energized and out in force after last year's electoral victories.
"His record as governor is anathema to what the tea party stands for," Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the Washington-based tea party organizer, said of Huckabee.
Whether Huckabee's and Palin's decisions to skip CPAC signal anything about their presidential ambitions is unknown. David Keene, who until Wednesday headed CPAC's parent organization, the American Conservative Union, said he was personally disappointed the two are unable to attend but doesn't think it will hurt them.
"She wanted to come, and we wanted her to come," Keene said of Palin. "They were working it out right up until last week. I really wish she had come this year, and I think she does, too."