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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.

WASHINGTON, D.C -- If there was any unifying theme to this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, it was the disunity of the Right. Just ask Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were treated to a little shock and awe, booed and heckled mercilessly when the former presented the latter -- in all seriousness -- with the Defender of Liberty Award.

The shout-down came mostly from supporters of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman whose perennial presidential campaign draws enthusiastic support from the young libertarians so heavily represented at CPAC, thanks to conference organizers' outreach to college students. Paul opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The strong showing of young people at CPAC is believed to be at least partly responsible for Paul's win of CPAC's annual presidential straw poll, which he won with 30 percent of the vote. (Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also spoke at the conference, came in second, with 23 percent.) CPAC officials said 11,000 attended the conference; some 3,700 participated in the straw poll.

David Keene, the long-serving president of CPAC's organizing group, the American Conservative Union, said he thought bringing in the Paul contingent was a good thing for the conservative movement. "One thing Ron Paul did in the course of his presidential campaign -- and I'm not a Ron Paul supporter -- but he energized kids. And a lot of them are here. And I want those kids, because they believe in most of the things that I believe in...."

Since the mid-1990s, CPAC has been a major organizing ground for young conservatives, a deliberate strategy by Keene and his supporters.

Keene's approach has long focused on enlarging the right-wing coalition; it was on his watch that GOProud, a Republican gay and lesbian group, first became a CPAC sponsor last year. But Keene's big-tent approach may end with the close of his tenure at ACU. He's stepping down to retire. Filling his position will be Al Cardenas, who told Tim Mak at FrumForum that "it’s going to be difficult to continue the relationship" with GOProud.

GOProud's inclusion at the conference drew the consternation of such old-line right-wing institutions as the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council, which boycotted the conference in response, along with potential GOP presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Schlafly: Marriage Equality Leads to Child Marriage

Indeed, ACU appears to have been swayed by its old social conservative friends, such as Phyllis Schlafly, who served as master of ceremonies at the CPAC gala. At a panel discussion following the showing of the Citizens United film, Fire in the Heartland, Schlafly sat next to Cleta Mitchell, chairman of the ACU Foundation. Mitchell talked about how, before her conversion to conservatism, she used to think Schlafly's anti-feminist rhetoric to be nothing but scare tactics. But now, she said, she recognized Schlafly as a woman of vision.

Mitchell recounted a discussion with Schlafly over "whether or not we should have GOProud as a participating organization at CPAC." She continued, "One of the things that Phyllis said...is when you take away the commitment that we have as conservatives -- and as a country, as a society -- to traditional marriage -- marriage as being defined as one man and one woman -- when you take that away, it opens the door to not just the breakdown of the family, the elimination of the family, the polygamy, forced, arranged marriages, child marriages... the whole multicultural issues that come about because, well, we just can't say that this is what we think is right for society because somebody might be offended by that."