WASHINGTON – Despite the jubilant atmosphere after widespread Republican election victories, conservatives planning this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (search) insist they do not always ride in lockstep with the White House or GOP.
"I would emphasize that this is a 'conservative political action conference.' It's not a Republican Party function at all," said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union (search), the primary sponsor of the event, which will be held Feb. 17 through 19 in Washington, D.C.
Nonetheless, with early agenda items like "2004: How the Good Guys Won," and "2004: How the Bad Guys Tried to Stop Us and How We Can Guard Against Future Cheating," and a rousing tribute to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) for defeating Democratic candidate John Kerry, the event is likely to be marked by a lot of communal celebration of President Bush's re-election.
Key Republican speakers this year include Vice President Dick Cheney (search), White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, nine U.S. senators and many members of the House.
"It's a different environment when you have a conservative president and both chambers of the Congress are in our control," said Lessner.
Over the first four years of the Bush presidency, dissent among the CPAC ranks was not loud, but it was adamant, particularly over issues of spending, immigration, civil liberties and even the War on Terror.
Lessner and other longtime conservatives acknowledge that while rifts continue to divide conservatives, particularly over the budget and immigration, they may be less prone to saber rattling against the GOP this year.
"We are a fractious bunch," said Lessner, but "over the last 20 years, the Republican Party has become a much more conservative party."
Richard Viguerie, one of the leaders of the conservative movement, agreed that Republicans have moved toward them over the years.
"It's not that there is a coming together to support the president's agenda, or the Republican agenda. I'd say it is a maturing of the conservative movement, and maybe of the Republican Party too," he said.
Phil Kent, author of "The Dark Side of Liberalism" and executive director of the American Immigration Control Foundation (search), said divisions remain, however. The panel in which he is participating will discuss border patrol issues and is likely to be a barn burner, considering that Bush is pushing a plan for guest worker visas that is widely opposed by conservatives today.
"I'm going to blast Bush from the podium," he said. "These folks are conservative first and Republicans second. It's not a Republican love-fest."
Lessner said sparks should also fly on the Social Security panel as well as panels dealing with budgets and taxes. Former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr will talk about protecting civil liberties while enhancing national security.
Viguerie said there is sure to be debate over recent remarks by the Bush administration suggesting it would like to ratify the United Nation's Law of the Sea Treaty (search), which allows international controls over the high seas, which they say prevents U.S. interdiction of vessels and redistributes resources to poor countries.
"That's going to bring conservatives together in opposition to Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice," he said.