The Republican Party and the conservative movement's nascent efforts to find their new identities will be center-stage over the next three days at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a yearly Washington confab featuring the top figures and minds on the political right.

Over at Post Politics, we'll keep you updated on the blow by blow down at the Gaylord Hotel in suburban Maryland. And the agenda can be found on the CPAC website.

But before the festivities begin Thursday morning, we thought it would be helpful to set the stakes a little. Below are five key plotlines to keep tabs on.

1. Rubio vs. Rand: The two highest-profile potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates in the Senate just happen to be speaking back to back on Thursday, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) going at 1:15 p.m. and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) going at 1:30 p.m. And if you don't think people will be comparing their remarks and receptions, you don't know Washington politics.

 (Steve Pope/Getty Images) (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

It strikes us, though, that this crowd might be more Paul-friendly than a normal Republican crowd. Supporters of his father, former congressman Ron Paul, have regularly flooded CPAC in an effort to win the straw poll. It's not clear whether there is an organized effort to do the same for the younger Paul, but he will certainly have plenty of devotees in the building.

2. New GOP vs. old GOP: As the debate over Rand Paul's filibuster showed, the Republican Party is very much wedged between the older generation of foreign policy hawks and establishment-minded politicians and the new generation of very conservative, often libertarian-leaning Republicans.

As Karen Tumulty notes, a few of the panel discussions will get at this crisis of identity, with subject matter including whether the country is spending too much on defense, waging too many wars and spending too much money on prisons. The debate over topics like these will be perhaps the major focus this weekend and determine how the party re-shapes itself.

3. Can Jeb Bush right the ship?: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush's return to the political scene last week didn't go as planned, specifically when he seemed to go back on his previous support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and then struggled to enunciate his position in a very un-Jeb-like manner.

Bush is otherwise known as one of the most effective communicators in the party. Look for him to try and reclaim that mantle during his speech at Friday night's Ronald Reagan Dinner. But also keep in mind that Bush is a guy who doesn't like politics as much as policy, and if he's not getting good reviews at forums like CPAC, a 2016 presidential campaign is going to seem a lot less attractive.

4. Ben Carson's entree: The mainstream media have been somewhat slow to pick up on the Maryland doctor's rising star in the the conservative movement (and potentially, by extension, in the GOP). Ever since his speech at last month's National Prayer Breakfast, in which he criticized President Obama with Obama sitting only several feet away at the head table, Carson has been a celebrity in the conservative media.

Rest assured that Carson will be among the most anticipated speakers among the conservative faithful. And we would bet that the media starts to pick up on that enthusiasm shortly after Carson appears on-stage on Saturday morning, which will be the first time many have heard him.

5. Mitt Romney's return: Romney will deliver his first public speech since the end of the 2012 campaign on Friday afternoon. While Republicans aren't exactly nostalgic for the 2012 election and probably care little about Romney's recipe for future success, his address will be important in helping the party figure out what happened last year.

It's also a chance for Romney to do some work to repair his own image, which suffered from the loss and from some not-so-helpful comments he made shortly thereafter. Losers of presidential campaigns can still have solid reputations and major profiles, but they need to keep working at it.


Obama's Wednesday meeting with House Republicans focused on entitlement reform. He also told them balancing the budget over the next 10 years is not on his priority list.

The Senate Democratic budget makes only small trims to Medicare and Medicaid.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's first ad features his wife.

Florida's lieutenant governor resigned amid a racketeering probe.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) lauded Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a speech.

Virginia Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II (R) swore off signing pledges, including Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge.

Scott Prouty revealed himself as the man behind the Mitt Romney "47 percent" video.


"Does Conservative Political Action Conference matter anymore?" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

"NRA money helped reshape gun law" -- Peter Finn, Washington Post

“Why Gunmakers Fear the NRA” -- Paul M. Barrett, Bloomberg Businessweek