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What We're Watching At The Conservative Political Action Conference

Ben Carson talks with media after his CPAC speech.
Carolyn Kaster
Ben Carson talks with media after his CPAC speech.

This week's Conservative Political Action Conference has drawn a huge crowd of activists and politicos, per usual — but it's also a prime spot for 2016 presidential hopefuls. The GOP's potential candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. Bobby Jindal — are rolling on and off the main stage, hoping to fire up the conservative audience. And how well they do with this crowd — an important part of their base — may say a lot about 2016. Here are five things I'll be watching for at CPAC:

1. Which (potential) candidate for the GOP nomination lights a fire under the crowd

I might also label this category "Is Scott Walker Real?" This is a crowd that likes an aggressive conservative who is combative, can fire up the crowd and will fulfill the belief that if the GOP nominates a "true conservative," and not a moderate as most here saw Mitt Romney and John McCain, then the Republicans can rebound from a streak in which they've lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.

2. Can Jeb Bush play well here?

This is a variation on No. 1, but it's worth its own spot on the list. Bush's record as governor of Florida gives him a solid conservative record and reason enough to claim he is just the kind of smart, experienced conservative the party and the GOP need right now. But Bush skipped a presidential forum in Iowa last month that was hosted by the very conservative Rep. Steve King. He supports Common Core education policy, and his language on immigration is far too measured for many in this room.

3. What kind of energy do conservatives have this year?

They are unified about beating the person they are pretty certain will be the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. But will the strong Republican performance in 2014 serve to prime the pump for the kind of sustained effort they'll need in 2016? Or does it mask the problems that a party still faces in terms of reaching out to young and moderate voters in national elections? This CPAC should be one of the biggest, craziest, most electric ever, given that it's the last before the presidential primary and caucus season kicks off. Will it be?

4. How is the GOP outreach to young voters going?

CPAC is always flooded with college students who come from all over the country, many with the help of scholarships and aid from big sponsors. Often these young conservatives have more libertarian views and can be out of step with their party on social issues such as same-sex marriage. I'll be looking to see what impact this group has on the larger movement, and if those views are able to fit into a GOP that says it wants to be a big tent, open to many points of view.

5. Is President Obama still public enemy No. 1 with with CPAC activists?

He's certainly given them enough reasons to keep him at the top of their chart. Executive actions on immigration. His veto this week of the Keystone XL pipeline bill. Strong disagreements on foreign policy, confronting the self-declared Islamic State. A belief that he's not a friend to Israel. But my question is: Will all of this take a back seat to 2016, the need to link Hillary Clinton to President Obama and preparing to take her on next year?

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.