The Washington Post

Behind the scenes at CPAC: Conservative stars mingle in the green room

Speaking Thursday at CPAC 2014, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Republicans can appeal to young people, for whom the president's "agenda has been horrible." (The Associated Press)

Beyond the bright lights above the football-field-size stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, beyond the maze of talk-radio hosts and college students crowding the hallways at the Gaylord Hotel, there is a tiny green room, blocked off by a black curtain and protected by narrow-eyed security guards with earpieces.

This room is where the political dealings of the conservative movement happened Thursday, where interest-group honchos, pundits and Republican leaders mingled as they sipped Diet Coke.

There was George F. Will, the Washington Post columnist; there was Mike DuHaime, embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s political strategist. There was Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist with a salt-and-pepper beard, with former United Nations ambassador John Bolton a few steps away. It was an all-star dugout of the right’s veteran stars and power brokers.

Norquist, a board member of the American Conservative Union, which puts on the conservative gathering, said he was parked at CPAC’s windowless backroom for much of the morning, sharing his low-tax gospel with visiting GOP officials, such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Because of CPAC’s growth in recent years — with hundreds of reporters and thousands of attendees toting camera phones — many politicians are not as eager as they once were to go roaming through the conference’s halls. Instead, many prefer to arrive by black SUV, enter through the back door, and hang in the informal cloakroom as the conservative revival roars on outside.

At the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), presented his departing colleague Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) with a rifle. (The Associated Press)

“I’ve got this green ribbon, which says I’m a board member and a speaker,” Norquist said with a wink, running his finger along his credential. “This is the rare quiet spot where you can catch up with these guys, and it’s a two-way pitch. I share what I’m up to, and they tell me what they’re doing.”

Early on, Ryan dropped in and updated Norquist on the recent tax-reform proposal of Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.). “We went over what is useful in the plan and what is not,” Norquist said. “Then Cruz came in, and we discussed Tuesday’s Texas primary, and he had some great inside stories about what’s going on in state politics and how he sees the race for governor.”

DuHaime, who has been a key member of Christie’s inner circle for years, spent a few minutes in the green room after arriving from the airport and then wheeled his luggage past the row of bloggers and talk-radio kiosks to watch Christie’s speech from inside the hall, looking to gauge the reactions up close and see whether the conservatives would give him a warm welcome.

DuHaime was joined by Bill Palatucci, Christie’s best friend and fundraiser, plus Russ Schriefer, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, who has produced ads for Christie and advised his gubernatorial campaigns. At times, the group seemed a little edgy, hardly at home in this right-wing extravaganza. But they made sure to tell reporters, who eyed them closely, that things went well.

“I tend to tag along at a lot of these kind of events, and I’m happy with how that went,” DuHaime said as he walked to the backstage sanctuary after Christie’s speech. “There is a lot of dysfunction in Washington, and he did a great job of contrasting that with the work of Republican governors.”

When pressed on Christie’s presidential prospects and the bridge-closing scandal that has ensnared much of Christie’s administration in recent weeks, DuHaime declined to comment and soon ducked past the guards and disappeared.

For others, just being close to the conservative flame and alongside big-name Republicans was enough, especially for those looking to expand their Rolodex networks, such as Sam Nunberg, a fast-talking consultant from New York.

“I’ve been coming here since I was 13, and it’s cool to be here as a real politico,” said Nunberg, 32, as he exchanged business cards and shook hands, talking up his media-relations experience. “This is my Mardi Gras.”

As he networked, Nunberg also reveled in his new notoriety among the CPAC faithful, after his departure from Donald Trump’s staff in February. Trump and Nunberg parted after a story on BuzzFeed that profiled Trump and incensed the entrepreneur. Nunberg resigned and criticized the story’s author, setting off a firestorm on Twitter.

With a wistful sigh, Nunberg said he hoped to maybe meet up with Trump, whom he still reveres.

“I’m in touch with his people,” he said. “You know, I actually helped Mr. Trump get this nice afternoon speaking slot, before I left.”

And at CPAC, such an encounter remains possible — as long as Nunberg stays near the green room, his eyes open and his credentials on.

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.

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