Will CPAC Thin Or Expand The Republican Presidential Herd?

William A. Jacobson William A. Jacobson is Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Securities Law Clinic at Cornell Law. He is a 1981 graduate of Hamilton College and a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School. Professor Jacobson also is the founder and publisher of two popular websites, Legal Insurrection and College Insurrection.
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Whether the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) annual conference is relevant to the Republican Party and potential presidential candidates is debated each year.

For 2015 at least, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” CPAC’s conference next week could go a long way towards sorting out the trajectories of a growing field of likely Republican presidential candidates.

The list of serious potential presidential candidates speaking at CPAC has grown to include a wide cross-section, including Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum.

Some of these candidates have high name recognition, fundraising power and the enthusiasm of the conservative activist base, while others are lacking in one or more of these attributes.

For all these candidates, CPAC could be a boost, a dud, or worse. And for one candidate, CPAC could put her on the map.

Here’s my assessment of where the candidates stand, and how CPAC appearances could help or hurt them:

Jeb Bush has big money and a big name, but is lacking in big enthusiasm among the non-donor activist class. The doubts about Jeb are manifold – soft or wobbly on immigration and Common Core, and perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a big government Republican in the mold of his brother, George W. Having been out of politics for the last decade, Jeb needs to introduce himself to a Republican electorate not necessarily enamored of the Bush name. CPAC could be Jeb’s conservative coming out.

Mike HuckabeeRick Santorum and Rick Perry have big name recognition, but have run before in campaigns that ended in failures that left them politically damaged goods. All will get good crowd receptions, but will it be their swan songs, or a new political beginning? I’m betting on the swans.

Ted Cruz will rock the house. No doubt about that. His appearance will be an 8.0 earthquake. But the rock star of the conservative movement needs to translate that enthusiasm into a perception of a credible national candidacy.

Bobby Jindal needs to show he’s not just a policy wonk, and can excite people. He may be auditioning for VP, whether he knows it or not.

Rand Paul can come across as Mr. Quirky from a traditional conservative perspective. More libertarian than many, which reflects a Tea Party-type approach. But can he broaden his appeal? Also, he still lives in the shadow of his father, but that is lessening over time. Paul has among the most to gain from a successful CPAC appearance.

Scott Walker until recently was the sleeper candidate, someone who had fought the good fight with unions and the worst the Democrat political operation could throw at him, and lived to tell about it. Three times. That said, Walker was not considered a top-tier national prospect until his speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit. Walker needs to keep that momentum going, and present himself as the clearest alternative to Jeb, acceptable to the conservative base and the donor class.

Carly Fiorina has the most to gain at CPAC. Like Jindal, I consider her auditioning for VP, given she has not held political office before.  She did well at the Iowa Freedom Summit, and a solid CPAC appearance could take her from “who?” to a serious candidate.

Expect furious spin operations by political operatives and media after each speech.

But the buzz in the hallways may the best indicator of how candidates did. And that buzz is hard to fake.

William A. Jacobson is Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, and publisher of Legal Insurrection Blog.