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Do conservatives stand with Rand? CPAC opening highlights divisions in party

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FILE: March 14, 2013: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. (AP)

In a speech to a conservative audience that spanned several decades of U.S. foreign policy, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert spoke passionately about the wars of yesteryear, tying together Vietnam, the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – while mostly blaming them on former President Jimmy Carter.

“If you go to war, you’d better mean it,” Gohmert said a few times during a speech and panel discussion Thursday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC for short – just outside Washington, D.C.

Yet Gohmer's hawkish comments -- the kind of red meat that usually goes over well at these gatherings -- got a tepid response from the crowd, which clapped politely when he finished but seemed almost disconnected with his walk down memory lane.

“I’m sure we could hear all about this on the History Channel,” one person was overheard saying. 

The chatter on the opening day of CPAC was just the latest evidence that -- on matters of military power, anyway -- the conservative movement may be undergoing a change. Younger members seem to be gravitating toward the restrained view espoused by lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., whose 13-hour filibuster last week on the floor against the president's unchecked drone authority drew broad attention to that view. 

Paul, still basking in the media glow of his controversial performance, on Thursday garnered an enthusiastic response from the crowd when he addressed CPAC. During his speech, the son of the libertarian, anti-war icon former Rep. Ron Paul, bluntly called attention to the cultural divide within the GOP.

“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don't think we need to name any names, do we? Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom,” Paul said, met by applause. 

In an indication of how conservatives like Paul may be changing the discussion, the kick-off panel -- the one on which Gohmert spoke -- was titled: “Too Many American Wars? Should We Fight Anywhere and Can We Afford It?” 

The scene at CPAC a few hours after Gohmert’s talk was much different. A standing-room-only group had gathered to watch Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who warmed up the audience by talking about God, students and the American dream. 

Paul, in his speech, said: “The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere. If we're going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP. We must have a message that is broad, our vision must be broad, and that vision must be based on freedom."

Even before he needled the party Thursday, Paul's 13-hour filibuster drew sharp criticism from influential Republicans like Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain. McCain, a Vietnam veteran, called it a “stunt” meant to “fire up impressionable libertarian kinds in their college dorms.” But Paul’s speech won praise from civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle. Twitter tracked more than a 1 million tweets relating to the filibuster. There were 450,000 with the hashtag #standwithrand.

Conservatives of all stripes will get their chance to be heard at CPAC. The hawkish old guard, as well as the costly conflict-averse new guard which includes figures like Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, will all be speaking in prime spots at the three-day gathering. 

For younger attendees, the Paul message seemed to have a certain appeal. 

“I appreciate the old guard and the hard-line conservatives but there are a lot of different policies both Libertarian and conservative – and I don’t want to be disrespectful but I see his (Paul’s) appeal in the 21st century too,” Taylor University student and CPAC participant Kasey Leander told FoxNews.com.  

The CPAC gathering comes as the GOP is struggling with identity issues and trying to carve out a future. By most accounts, Democrats pushed a more unified message harder, faster and more effectively than Republicans in the last election cycle. With the sting of 2012 behind them and midterm elections around the corner, the GOP is racing to retool their image and their message.

The roster of speakers at this year’s CPAC speaks the story of the struggle. While there are some marquee names, there have been some big snubs. Notably not invited to the conservative conclave was popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas told reporters he didn’t invite Christie because the conservative movement is “not a home for everybody.”

“I am a firm believer that if the Republican Party’s going to have success, it’s going to do so by being a conservative party and not a home for everybody,” he said. “And that’s how you grow. I mean, look, you grow your tent by convincing others, and persuading others, that yours is the way, and you build your tent by reaching out to the new demographics of America not with a watered down version of who we ought to be but with a true, real, solid version of who we are.”