This past weekend over 10,000 conservatives and libertarians gathered at the 37th Conservative Political Action Conference, well-known in America’s corridors of power as CPAC. This year’s CPAC revealed both an incredible opportunity and a deadly threat to the Republican Party, asking the question of which path the GOP will choose.

Many GOP stars were shining at CPAC. Both elected officials and conservative luminaries discussed everything from the economy, to health care, to abortion, to national security, to the Supreme Court. As Rush Limbaugh noted on his show earlier this week, Republicans do not yet have a leader, but the GOP faithful knows what the Party stands for, and is looking for a leader that will champion those principles.

Unlike previous years, however, there was a palpable sense that many (though not all) Republican big-wigs understood that they could not take the conservative vote for granted. It was also interesting to see many the libertarians present, both as a group and also a few of them as speakers, who openly condemn the Republican Party and invite the young people present to abandon the GOP in favor of the Libertarian Party.

With 48% of those voting in the CPAC presidential straw poll identifying themselves as students, it was clear that many of the twentysomethings present were almost as fed up with Republican Party failures as they were with Barack Obama and his Democrats.

Almost, though not quite.

Many of them expressed this frustration by voting for Ron Paul in the CPAC presidential straw poll. Their votes, combined with the large, professionally-organized and outspoken libertarian groups present that systematically voted as a bloc, succeeded in vaulting Paul to a solid win in the poll.

There’s a critical lesson for the GOP to learn from this. Friday night, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour made a cameo appearance at the dinner banquet. He said he was aware that although everyone present was a conservative (not quite true, given the number of libertarians), not all of them were Republicans or committed to voting Republican. Saying (correctly) that a vote for a third party is a vote to reelect Barack Obama and Democrat congressional majorities, Barbour pledged that the GOP would work hard to earn the votes of disenchanted conservatives.
National conservative leader, Secretary Ken Blackwell, summed it up best when he said, “The problem with too many Republicans is that they run sounding like Ronald Reagan, but then govern like Jimmy Carter.”

The GOP needs to take that to heart and follow through.

Regarding recent Republican performances in office, almost everyone at CPAC seemed to agree on two things: First, when Republicans controlled Congress in recent years, their spending record was nothing short of atrocious. And second, George W. Bush was conservative on some issues -- such as national security and the need to reduce taxes -- but he wasn’t at all conservative when it came to government spending and market interference.

Many Bush and Republican policies were roundly criticized at CPAC, especially by keynote speaker Glenn Beck (who is not a Republican). It’s clear that many present were not interested in a Republican politician unless that Republican is also a conservative. And, for the first time, many Republican speakers considering presidential runs seemed to grasp that fact.

On a related note, there was also an unusually-strong focus on the U.S. Constitution. Governor Tim Pawlenty reflected this theme when he said, “We’re planting our flag on constitutional ground.” There was a keen awareness that much of Obama’s agenda runs afoul of constitutional safeguards, from attempting to command Americans to buy health insurance to trying to destroy talk radio.

One consistent advocate of constitutional conservatism at CPAC is Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, who repeated his consistent message that, “Republicans didn’t just lose our majority; we lost our way.” But this time, Pence was also able to say that the GOP was heading in the right direction, and that, “Republicans in Congress are back in the fight on the right.”

The unavoidable danger in this situation is the emergence of fair-weather conservatives. Now that railing against big government and embracing the Constitution is politically advantageous, every would-be Republican leader is doing it. Several speakers at CPAC gave rousing speeches on these topics that are utterly irreconcilable with what they were saying and doing as recently as two or four years ago.

Although the college students ate up that rhetoric with relish, in meetings of conservative heavyweights behind closed doors there were earnest discussions about who could really be trusted in the White House when events inevitably lead to a public outcry for more spending or government power.

Given the new focus on the Constitution, a perfect example of potential disappointment is Supreme Court nominees. Although George W. Bush eventually nominated John Roberts and Samuel Alito, he wanted (and tried) to give us Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers. The next Republican presidential nominee will not have the support of conservatives unless they believe he can be trusted to nominate the right kind of person to the S

In the end, CPAC revealed the Republican Party to be at a fork in the road. If the Party talks conservative but don’t walk the walk, the masses currently fueling tea party rallies and asserting themselves at town halls will stay home or even vote for a third party. If the GOP takes a stand on conservative principles that enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, then they can mobilize these masses and harness their red-hot energy.

If CPAC is any indication, the Party of Reagan may be ready to return to its Reagan conservative principles. If polls are any indication, the American people may be ready to rally to such a banner.

Ken Klukowski is a fellow and senior legal analyst with the American Civil Rights Union.