The hubbub over GOProud was just beginning last year when Ryan Sorba of the California Young Americans for Freedom took the stage at CPAC, and derided the conference itself for allowing the group to co-sponsor the conference. He was booed by the mostly college-age crowd.
Things heated up this year when a number of social conservative mainstays pulled out of the conference over the group's presence. It's a "movement away from conservative principles," Tom McClusky, senior vice president for the Family Research Council's political action arm said back in December. The National Organization for Marriage and Concerned Women for America also announced they would not attend.
Soon, the Media Research Center and the Heritage Foundation backed out. And though Heritage was initially cagey about the reasoning, spokesman James Wiedman evenutally admitted: "GOProud was one element in the decision."
Though things reached a high point for the boycotters when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined up, that was the extent of the ripple effect. Sure, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) isn't showing up this year despite keynoting last year, but his spokesman cited scheduling conflicts and denied it had anything to do with social conservatives. And then there's Sarah Palin, who turned down the top speaking spot (a spot which is now going to Florida Rep. Allen West) -- but she hasn't attended the past three years, and her PAC is manning its own booth at the conference.
Add to that the slate of high-status Republicans who are showing up, and the boycott looks even more ineffective. For one thing, you've got almost everyone who's been mentioned in the same breath as 2012 these past few months -- Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, John Bolton, Rick Santorum, John Thune, and Mitt Romney -- scheduled to speak.
The lasting highlight will be likely be the 2012 presidential straw poll. Romney touted winning it in the past to shore up his conservative credentials during of his 2008 run for president. Last year, Rand Paul won it -- and signs point to him pushing hard for a second win this year. If Paul comes out ahead, you'll see the press make little of the victory. But if one of the jockeying frontrunners -- say, Pawlenty or Romney -- come away with the win, it will be viewed as a sign that they've become the conservative choice. Results from the poll, which is conducted usually among a small sample of CPAC attendees, will be announced in Saturday.
But there's plenty to watch in the meantime: your establishment superstars Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan; your tea party heroes Mike Lee and Rand Paul; and your guaranteed bringer-of-the-headlines, Steve King.
One group, the American Principles Project, is trying for a last minute push to bolster the profile of the boycott. They ran some Google and print ads this week in an effort to get people to sign their "Open Letter to CPAC Attendees and Presenters" arguing that "social issues are fundamental to the fabric of conservatism and the character of our country."
But the head of the group admitted to the Washington Post last month that they chose to boycott as a way of getting publicity -- if they had simply shown up to argue their case, "the story wouldn't have made it out of the party. We would not have been able to draw attention to the issue."
If they had shown up, they may have seen that despite all of the posturing, social issues are not off the table for CPAC. Abortion, illegal immigration, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and gay marriage will all be covered. Even the anti-sharia set have Pamela Geller's The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks screening to look forward to (despite some right-wing concern that the whole conference has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood).
Perhaps anti-tax activist Grover Norquist (who will be speaking at CPAC) had it right when he told Roll Call this week: "Loser people and loser organizations that haven't done any work all year try to get headlines so they can whine about CPAC. They can get a little press. That happens all the time."
We'll be on the ground throughout the conference, so stay tuned for updates.