Published February 16, 2010
Here's the vision for this year's Conservative Political Action Conference: Outside, Lou Dobbs is waxing cranky on the country's economic decline. Inside, the hip crowd will be playing video games, watching movies, eating snacks and listening to rap music.
In a bid to make conservative chic, organizers of the annual meet-up of Republican Party faithful and right-wing firebrands are taking pains this year to gear their summit toward students and the under-30 crowd. Added to the menu are a slew of new media workshops and an entertainment lineup befitting a college campus.
Organizers say the conference, which kicks off Thursday in Washington, has had a large college-age contingent for years now. But they are making an extra push to attract and entertain that crowd with youth-oriented talks and the addition of something called the XPAC Lounge -- a room one organizer dubbed the "hub of fun."
That's where the video games and the junk food will be.
"We're gonna have the most popular games. There'll be Guitar Hero. There'll be Dance Revolution. There'll be Call of Duty," said Kevin McCullough, the radio host who created the XPAC Lounge with actor Stephen Baldwin .
"I wouldn't be surprised if somebody of Joe-the-Plumber stature came in three times a day to come in and rally the kids," CPAC spokesman Ian Walters said.
But organizers are putting a premium on the fun factor. The lounge will be equipped with Nintendo Wii and Xbox, McCullough said. It will feature about 10 video game stations, two with seven-foot screens. "Old school" games like air hockey and foosball will also be on hand.
It will be the scene of a late-night "rap/jam session" on Thursday and a conservative comedy lineup on Friday. FoxNews.com's Strategy Room will also be broadcasting from the XPAC Lounge.
McCullough said organizers wanted to give younger conference-goers, who can buy a three-day lounge ticket for $20, a place to hang while the older crowd attends the high-priced nightly dinners. Plus, he said, conservatives are trying to attract more young activists and replicate the kind of success President Obama had in winning over young supporters in 2008.
"We think that same thing can happen for people who are right of center," he said. "More than anything, that generation simply needs a pat on the back and the encouragement of, 'We believe in you.'"
The approach is a bit of a throwback to how Steele said he would approach conservative messaging when he took over the party last year. He said in an interview last February he would apply conservative principles to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings" and described the coming GOP public relations push as "off the hook."
Steele's "hip-hop" approach suffered a misfire last fall, though, when he launched a blog under the name "What Up?" -- and then dropped the title after it was widely mocked.
Conference organizers said Steele had nothing to do with the CPAC event planning.
CPAC Director Lisa De Pasquale said students typically make up about half of the conference guest list. She said so far, 61 percent of the nearly 5,000 people pre-registered for this week's conference are students.
"We've always had high student attendance," she said.
But she said conservatives in general are starting to get back in the game of attracting young people -- and suggested they make up a vibrant counterculture on college campuses.
"This thing sort of goes back and forth in terms of where the energy is going, and right now it's flowing more toward the conservative candidates," De Pasquale said. "To be a rebel on campus, you have to be a conservative."
De Pasquale said conservatives are proving more adept at using new media, and the agenda reflects that. It includes workshops and sessions on blogging, using Twitter, the "impact of viral videos" and other "new media" discussions.
McCullough said young conservatives are plenty capable of being active in the movement, particularly with new media. He said they just need to be "empowered."
He cited James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, activists both in their 20s known for their ACORN sting operation last year. The activists dressed up as a pimp and prostitute and used hidden cameras to capture ACORN workers at offices across the country offering them tax advice.
O'Keefe has since been arrested and charged in an alleged plot to tamper with the phone system in Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office. But McCullough said both O'Keefe and Giles will be honored with the "XPAC Annual Award for Impact" this weekend -- it's an award aimed at activists under 30 who did not "wait their turn in line" to make a difference, he said.
Giles is scheduled to attend. O'Keefe has been ordered by a judge to temporarily stay with his parents in New Jersey.