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Right-Wing Disunity? Clashes at This Year's Conservative Political Action Conference

If there was any unifying theme to this year's conference, it was conflict between different factions on the Right.

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West, an African American, then set himself up as a sort of anti-Obama, railing against the president's agenda on issues ranging from health-care reform to the START treaty with Russia. He relentlessly attacked what he called "the vile onslaught" of the Left, while assuring his audience that he understood their pain. "You have endured the relentless and hostile attacks from the liberal Left, such as being called racists," he said. "Perhaps they should see who's standing here as your keynote speaker." He also hailed the the mission of the CPAC crowd. "You said that you would not allow your country to be cast into perpetual dust while the sun set on the ideals of American exceptionalism," he told them.

He warned against what he called "multiculturalism on steroids," which, he said, imperils "the definitive American culture." He continued, "When tolerance becomes a one-way street, it leads to cultural suicide."

West was initially considered a long shot in his race against incumbent Democrat Ron Johnson. Backed by the Tea Party movement, West rose to prominence with his in-your-face, often accusatory rhetoric -- aimed even at his fans -- and the right's producerist theme. At an October campaign appearance (video), West told cheering supporters, "In America today, you've got a class warfare that's going on. You've got a producing class and you've got an entitlement class...."

"These people are living amongst us," West explained during his campaign appearance, "and if we are not willing to take a stand right now, and take this country back, and put it back on the right track of the principles and values it was established upon, you're complicit." Pointing at people in the audience, he added, "It's your fault, it's your fault, it's your fault up there. It's okay to come in here to cheerlead, but you better understand that it's a fight, and you better be willing to fight for this country."

That was then; this is now. No pointing at the CPAC audience. Still, even after winning a seat in Congress, West appears to require a sense of being embattled in order to maintain the defiant stance that got him elected. And so tonight at CPAC he mentioned Politico's rating of his seat as "vulnerable" to Democratic challenge, and won the crowd by saying, "Standing here before each and every one of you, I don't feel so vulnerable."

He said the "liberal media" would continue to "attack" him, and then dared them to continue. He spoke with pride of having been named a "worst person" five times by former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. "And he got fired for it," West said, which is something more than an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the CPAC crowd loved him for it. (What's a little lie between patriots?)

West declared that he would "never let Israel down." He spoke of America's "Judeo-Christian culture" and declared himself pro-life, saying, "I don't believe that having a baby is a punishment." He called for a reduction of the corporate tax rate to 20 percent, and for the repeal of the health-care reform law.

It was often difficult to hear West over the roar of the crowd. However defiant his attitude, West's delivery was more measured and less fiery than it was on the campaign trail. He continued to stand by radio talk show host Joyce Kaufman, whom West had named as chief of staff for his congressional office -- until a public outcry convinced him to dismiss her. (Kaufman once called for the hanging of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.)

West's selection could be seen as a desire by CPAC leaders to prove the inclusiveness of their conference. Just before the results of CPAC's presidential poll were announced, a conference public relations official made the rounds of the media room to let us know that David Keene, the chairman of the CPAC's sponsoring organization, the American Conservative Union, would be available later in the evening to answer reporters' questions. "There will be a press availability after the Herman Cain speech," he said. "Herman Cain?" I asked. Cain had spoken the day before. "Yes," he replied, "after Herman Cain."