>>> Update: The Daily Signal has learned that Fox News host Sean Hannity will ask questions of presidential hopeful Jeb Bush for the former Florida governor’s entire 20-minute appearance at CPAC, set for 1:40 p.m. Friday.
By the time conservative activists leave the nation’s capital this weekend after their largest annual get-together, they should be better equipped for the 2016 campaign trail. They also may be a little closer to uniting behind a candidate for president who can win by addressing the concerns of everyday Americans.
“Let’s just say everybody’s going to have to answer some serious questions.” [email protected] on #CPAC2015
That, at least, is the goal of Matt Schlapp, who heads the team putting on the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC.
“We have to be able to reach [regular Americans] where they are and explain to them why conservative policies matter,” Schlapp says in an interview with The Daily Signal. “In the last presidential campaign, that connection did not happen. I don’t want to get personal about why; it just didn’t happen.”
In June, Schlapp assumed the chairmanship of the American Conservative Union. Leaders in the conservative movement founded the Washington-based umbrella group on shared principles in 1964; a decade later, it began organizing CPAC as a regular gathering of activists.
Beginning Wednesday, Schlapp will welcome thousands of conservatives from across the country as they come together for four days of speeches, panels, exhibits and other activities at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, D.C.
Besides White House hopefuls, attendees will hear from an A-list of conservative heroes. Making a long-awaited return to CPAC on Friday morning will be Fox News and talk-radio host Sean Hannity.
Innovations this year include a “less grandiose” stage that will extend into the audience, CPAC’s version of a runway like one Bono or Beyonce might prowl. Also new: repeated opportunities for attendees to question presidential hopefuls rather than just listen, and an afternoon devoted to preparing activists to make a difference back home.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, embraced what Schlapp calls the “up front” concept. Bush, who is striving to make inroads with conservatives who view him with some suspicion over his immigration and education stances, decided to devote his entire 20 minutes to a question-and-answer session.
In a move sure to impress, Bush is slated to field questions from an unimpeachable conservative. (Update 2:30 p.m.: Hannity, who will speak earlier Friday and for years has called for a “true conservative” candidate, will be that questioner, CPAC spokesman Ian Walters confirmed to The Daily Signal.)
“They want a strong conservative who can convince people that conservative ideas will fix these problems that the country faces.” [email protected]
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other potential candidates for president—even if they choose to open with the traditional prepared remarks—will be expected to answer six to eight minutes of queries filtered through CPAC officials.
“Let’s just say everybody’s going to have to answer some serious questions,” Schlapp, 47, tells The Daily Signal. “We’re going to be fair about those questions. We’re not looking to embarrass any of the candidates.”
In a first, Wednesday from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. will be dedicated to an “activism boot camp,” with additional offerings through Friday. The idea: concentrated training for the younger contingent—today’s millennials—that traditionally makes up a significant bloc of CPAC attendees. The theme: “Conservative Action Starts Here.”
Such changes, Schlapp says, show that he and other ACU veterans are determined to respond to the needs of those who will talk to family, friends and co-workers and get involved in campaigns.
With the notable exception of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who pleaded a scheduling conflict, most of the likeliest Republican candidates have 20-minute slots on the main stage Thursday or Friday.
Between stints as a congressional aide and a federal affairs executive for Koch Industries, Schlapp was White House political director during President George W. Bush’s first term through his re-election in 2004. Schlapp agrees with those who describe the initial field of Republican 2016 hopefuls as both big and impressive.
“I think what’s also fantastic,” he says, “is that they’re all grabbing the mantle of ‘I’m a conservative.’ ”
CPAC attendees will be among the first to probe that claim.
Thaleigha Rampersad produced the video excerpts of the interview. This post has been modified to correct hours for the “activism boot camp” and to report the Hannity-Bush session.