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At CPAC, pushing Republican hopefuls to dive into policy specifics

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WASHINGTON » Prepared remarks are out. Answering tough questions is in. And there should be plenty of them — especially for a candidate named Bush.

"We don’t want to hear the same freaking stump speech 20 times," said Ned Ryun, a board member of the American Conservative Union. "We want to hear people speak on specific issues."

That is the early outlook from the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of many of the youngest and most fervent activists in the right wing of the Republican Party. Nearly every major White House aspirant in the party is set to speak at the event on Thursday and Friday.

Especially at this point in the presidential cycle, CPAC, as it is universally known, has long been a proving ground for Republican contenders in connecting with and inspiring the most enthusiastic, organized elements of the conservative base.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin generated considerable excitement ahead of his appearance Thursday. "He’s under-promise, over-deliver in a nutshell," said Matt Robbins, the president of American Majority, a group that pushed for Walker’s re-election as governor last year. "He’s as Midwest as it gets."

Matt Kibbe, the president and chief executive of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party-aligned group, said, "I think Scott Walker is the candidate that might split the difference between the Rand Paul wing and the Jeb Bush wing."

But the crowd has a decidedly libertarian streak: Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, has won the CPAC straw poll the last two years, and broad support for a criminal justice overhaul among attendees this week — an issue that Paul has championed — suggested that he holds something of a home-court advantage this year as well.

Bush, the former Florida governor, whose fundraising sprint has given him an early advantage, appeared more a subject of curiosity, if not downright skepticism.

"I think young people are tired of hearing the Bush name," said Jeff Frazee, the executive director of Young Americans for Liberty, a group that was spawned by the 2008 presidential campaign of Ron Paul, Paul’s father. "The policies that he represents are very much those of a moderate liberal."

Candidates’ performances at CPAC are generally appraised by the kind of responses they earn for their most rousing applause lines, along with how they fare in the straw poll, and no one here suggested that would suddenly change. But many attendees said they would not be satisfied with sharp-edged attacks alone.

"I would like to see more from the candidates than just railing on Obama and Hillary and the media," said Matt Batzel, the national executive director of American Majority. "It needs to be less about red meat and more about solutions and bold ideas for the problems that face the country."

Sensing those stirrings, organizers are trying something different this year: a question-and-answer period of at least six minutes to go with each of the major speeches by White House contenders.

Bush, for one, has said he plans to skip a formal speech and instead spend his entire 20 minutes fielding questions, which are likely to include challenges to his embrace of Common Core educational standards or his moderate views on immigration.

But Bush’s recent attention to income inequality could earn him some goodwill with the so-called millennial generation: Many attendees who said they had struggled to find decent work after graduating from college called jobs and the economy their top priorities.

While Paul’s youthful following tends to serve him well in the straw poll, scoring a clear win this year may prove difficult, as CPAC organizers have made some changes to the polling process to get more details on what attendees think about policy issues and how their views on candidates change over time.

This year’s conference agenda is full of workshops intended to give conservatives ground-game advantages that they have sometimes lacked. Attendees will have the chance to learn skills such as video "tracking" — to spy on opponents’ public events and record their embarrassing moments — and using tools like Facebook and Twitter to identify and galvanize like-minded voters.

Those heading to CPAC said they also wanted to hear clear answers from would-be candidates on how they would fight the Islamic State, a concrete strategy for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and an immigration policy that would respond to President Barack Obama’s executive actions.

Katrina Pierson, a Tea Party supporter from Dallas, said Obama’s immigration plan provided an opportunity for Republicans to widen their tent and attract African-American voters. "We need to make clear that amnesty is going to be a huge job killer in the black population," Pierson said. "It’s their lives that are going to be impacted the worst."

As the conference seeks to take itself more seriously, through audience questions and the three-day-long "activism boot camp," attendees will still have the freedom — a popular word here — to express themselves.

"There’s far fewer Brooks Brothers blue blazers and Adam Smith ties, and I think that’s a healthy thing," said Kibbe, of FreedomWorks.

Indeed, that loosening up extends to the panels: For the first time since 2005, the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay conservatives, have been invited not just to attend, but to speak on a panel, about Russia under Vladimir Putin.

And, of course, there is the much-chronicled party scene, which Grover Norquist once likened to the Burning Man festival, "but with more clothes."

"People play hard and work hard," said Robbins of American Majority, "and there’s nothing wrong with either of that."

Nick Corasaniti and Alan Rappeport, New York Times

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