WASHINGTON -- Conservatives begin their annual jamboree here Thursday certain of two things, although they don't say them out loud. They need another Ronald Reagan. They don't have another Ronald Reagan.
Invoking the Gipper is almost a religious requirement on the Republican campaign trail this year, but none of the presidential candidates is convincingly channeling the true Reagan spirit: He spent a lifetime thinking through the conservative movement and turning it into a salable set of ideas.
Rather than serving as a unifying moment, the four-day Conservative Political Action Conference, now in its 39th year, has become a symbol of a sprawling, ultimately incoherent movement that has yet to develop a new synthesis for a new century.
Conservatives are united in their opposition to Barack Obama, observed Craig Shirley, a CPAC veteran and one of Reagan's newest and best biographers. "But hatred of the president is not a governing philosophy," he said.
The 2012 GOP race is divided into the shards of the old alliance, with Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul each appealing to different pieces of the now-shattered right and Mitt Romney acting the colorless "establishment" leader in a party without them. It feels more like the end of an era than the beginning of one, even though, paradoxically, this year's CPAC may well set a record for attendance and revenue.
Once CPAC was a launching pad for presidents, especially Reagan. This week, the Woodstock of the Right looks more like a trade show for new products. Somewhere in the crowded corridors and meeting rooms, there may be a new generation in the making. But you're unlikely to hear it in speeches from the presidential candidates.
Created in 1973 amid conservative concerns about the collapse of Richard Nixon's Republican Party, the Conservative Political Action Conference was in its early days all about one man: Ronald Reagan. He spoke at the first and every subsequent gathering until 1985. "CPAC wasn't invented for him, but it helped make him president," said Shirley. "Basically, he built CPAC and CPAC built him."
It took Reagan years to put together his team and his agenda -- years in which conservatives fought it out vehemently in the pages of publications such as Human Events and in groups such as the Young Americans for Freedom. They found a way to unite the libertarian, hawkish and cultural traditionalist wings in a message of individual liberty that resonated with voters.
After Reagan's second inauguration in 1985, CPAC became the conservative establishment. The goal of Reagan's political legatees, the Bush family, was to use or pacify CPAC even while acknowledging that it was not really their home territory or spawning ground. The Bushes' conservative foes -- from Jack Kemp to Pat Buchanan -- also used it as a launching pad for their candidacies. The event's annual straw poll, dominated by Reagan in the early years, became a coveted, if all too easily manipulated, trophy.
The usual strategy for winning the poll was and is to buy tickets for young participants on the condition that they vote for the candidate who sent them in. Romney won from 2007 to 2009 in part by using that tactic; Ron Paul did it in 2010 and 2011. "It's really just a form of organization," said Shirley.
But the poll this year means less than the buzz in the corridors and the thinking and arguing going on elsewhere. Coming as it does at a time of maximum confusion, division and despondency in the Republican ranks, CPAC amounts to a primary of sorts.
The winner doesn't get delegates. If he's lucky, he'll be able to invoke Ronald Reagan and not be laughed at.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of times CPAC has been held.
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