The annual CPAC gathering brought together conservatives, activists and possible 2016 candidates tapped with the responsibility to reshape and re-energize the Republican party. Kwame Holman gets reactions from attendees and looks at why some prominent GOP leaders, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, won't be at the podium.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thousands of activists gathered this week for one of the conservative movement's biggest events.
NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman was there.
KWAME HOLMAN: For four decades, the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, has served as a barometer of Republican politics.
And this year, the GOP's future direction is the issue for more than 10,000 delegates who've been meeting just outside Washington. At the last few gatherings of CPAC, the focus was on taking back the White House from President Obama. But with last November's defeat of Mitt Romney, this key bloc of conservative enthusiasts has set its sights on a new goal: reshaping and reenergizing the Republican Party.
Romney offered his own assessment today in his first public address since his concession speech on election night.
MITT ROMNEY, Former Presidential Candidate: Each of us in our own way is going to have to step up and meet our responsibility. I'm sorry I won't be your president, but I will be your co-worker, and I will work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Romney may be stepping away from the stage, but his running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, is back in the thick of fiscal fights on Capitol Hill. Today, he addressed the deficit.
REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: By living beyond our means, the government is sending us a message. It is saying, if you plan ahead, if you make sacrifices for your kids, if you save, you're a sucker. It is brazenly stealing from our children and from young adults, and it has to stop.
KWAME HOLMAN: Amid the stickers, tchotchkes and people in costume, the conference also showcased other rising Republican stars, calling for a fresh approach.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is a Tea Party favorite mulling a 2016 presidential bid. Fresh from an attention-getting filibuster, he warned, conservatives must stand on principle if they are to win nationally.
SEN. RAND PAUL, R-Ky.: 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. The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.
KWAME HOLMAN: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tailored his message to addressing the everyday concerns of middle-class Americans.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: Our people have not changed. The vast majority of the American people are hardworking taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, they pay their mortgage on time, they volunteer in the community. This is what the vast majority of the American people still are.
KWAME HOLMAN: Those not invited to speak illustrated the divisions in conservative ranks between Tea Party adherents and traditionalists. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was excluded after he praised President Obama's handling of superstorm Sandy last fall, and then criticized congressional Republicans for blocking emergency disaster funding.
Also snubbed was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is raising taxes to pay for a transportation plan in his state, all of which leaves conservatives facing a key question: how to unify behind a central message that moves the Republican Party forward.
Veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres says it will take more than tinkering.
WHIT AYRES, Republican Pollster: It is delusional to think that we have had the right message and we just haven't communicated it effectively. You don't lose five of the last six presidential elections in the popular vote if you have got the right message. So we need a new message, new messengers and a new tone.
KWAME HOLMAN: Francesca Chambers is editor of the conservative blog Red Alert Politics. She says the effort must involve more outreach to young people and minorities, but she acknowledges that will take time.
FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, Red Alert Politics: I think that it's unfair to say, oh, the election was in November, and we don't see big changes, sweeping changes happening yet. I think that everyone needs some time to make all these things happen. And we have got four years to make that happen.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, even as CPAC delegates focus on the next generation of conservatives, they're also listening to voices that were prominent in the past.
The list includes 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both scheduled to address the conference tomorrow.