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It’s cool to be conservative, kids!

A Sarah Palin impersonator, a man in a “big government” fat suit, Newt Gingrich’s presidential entra

On the morning of the opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I encountered a group of young women boarding a train at Dupont Circle Station in Washington, DC. They were wearing high heels and what seemed to be cocktail dresses underneath their winter coats. One of them sat down beside me. Her name was Tara and she used to be a treasury spokeswoman in the Bush administration; she was now working as a lobbyist, she confided ruefully. Her mother was one of the organisers of CPAC 2011 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in upper north-west Washington. As we trudged up­hill from the metro stop, Tara said: "There are a few strange people in there [the conference centre]. But then, you know, they can show up anywhere."

CPAC is hosted annually by the American Conservative Union Foundation, with financial help from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Young America's Foundation. In recent years, as many as half of those present have been college students. This year's attendance figures topped 11,000 and a gay conservative group, GOProud, was invited for the first time. The gathering was packed with young Sarah Palin wannabes: women in their twenties with robust, right-wing opinions.

The three-day conference was the first mass meeting of conservatives in Washington since their triumph in the midterm elections in November, when President Barack Obama lost his majority in the House of Representatives and the Tea Party swept in. It was an opportunity for potential presidential nominees to stump among the true believers.

The front-runner is the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who announced on 3 March that he is considering making a bid. Most speakers at CPAC entered stage right, but Gingrich appeared from the press balcony, sweeping down the stairs like royalty and approaching the stage from the centre aisle. He was wearing a grey suit and looked much as he used to on Capitol Hill before he crashed and burned over financial conflicts of interest and accusations of hypocrisy (he led the charge against Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair in 1998 while cheating on his own wife with a staffer). That staffer, Callista, who is now his third wife, walked out in front of him. As the couple forged ahead, trailed by guards, her diamonds glinted and Survivor's rock anthem "Eye of the Tiger" shook the rafters.

Last autumn, Gingrich was said to have already hoarded a campaign war chest equal in treasure to that of four of his possible competitors (Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin) combined, raking in a reported $52m over the past four years. He opened his speech with a litany of the ways in which the government has refused to acknowledge that Islamic terrorism remains a clear and present danger to Americans. When he made a Freudian slip and called CPAC "six-pack", the crowd tittered.

Over the three days in mid-February, a range of speakers marched on to the stage - from old favourites such as the former vice-president Dick Cheney to young turks such as Kristi Noem, the South Dakota representative and a Tea Party fav­ourite. They made speeches decrying big government, "Obama­care", the national debt and the burdens of taxation, then led their entourages around the maze of the hotel, shaking hands with the right-wing faithful.

Among the presidential hopefuls present were Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. But the conference favourite was Ron Paul, the Republican congressman for Texas who is devoted to fiscal conservatism, likely to be the party's core message in 2012. Paul won the presidential straw poll of attendees, though not before the tycoon Donald Trump, invited as "a surprise guest" by GOProud, strode on to the stage with the speakers blasting out the O'Jays song and Apprentice theme tune, "For the Love of Money": "Money, money, money, money, moneeey!" Trump delivered a rambling talk about the yen and his latest business endeavours and amused himself with a single goading political message, delivered with a pointed finger and repeated twice to loud boos: "Ron Paul can't get elected president!"

When it was his turn to speak, the NRA chief, Wayne LaPierre, transfixed the audience with what he claimed was a genuine recording of a 911 emergency call from a terrified woman. We listened as the woman, in ever greater panic, described a home invader entering her house and coming up the stairs to her bedroom, where she was cowering with "just my baby". The tape ended with her screaming, "He's here, he's inside!" LaPierre let the silence last for five seconds before he said: "Ladies and gentlemen, that's why we fight." The crowd went wild.

Outside the ballroom, back in the crowds, I heard the disembodied voice of Ronald Reagan permeating the din. CPAC 2011 coincided with what would have been the great man's 100th birthday, and television screens all around the lobby and in hallways were looping the Gipper in his prime. Before the day was over, staff wheeled a giant cake through the throng - a confectionary bust in a cowboy hat, rising out of white icing. Reagan's life-size Madame Tussauds waxwork stood sentinel at the door for the Reagan banquet on Saturday night, allowing those who had been too young in his lifetime to be photographed with him.

Setting out stalls

In a subterranean chamber of the hotel, as long as a football field and lined with hundreds of tables, "exhibitors" were giving away their pamphlets and wares, such as a "Bye-Bye Obama" countdown clock and a bumper sticker reading, "Thank me, I pay your mortgage". A 15-foot-high cardboard photograph of a foetus urged people to stand up for a constitutional amendment against abortion.

Later, after dodging a guy in a fat suit that bore the words "big government", I encountered the stall of the American Society for the Defence of Tradition, Family and Property, where two men wearing small, inexplicable red capes over their shoulders, flanking a knight's helmet on a table, handed out literature about "foetal murder" and the dangers of taxation to our way of life. Nearby, the NRA operated a giant, Wii-like shooting range. I also noticed the pitch for an organisation called Youth for Western Civilisation, whose logo was spelled out in Gothic lettering.

A pretty redhead with multiple piercings was handing out literature promoting anti-immigration rallies and "Straight Pride Month" college celebrations. She could have been a Starbucks barista but for the "Thor's hammer" charm dangling around her neck ("In honour of my, you know, Norwegian roots," she said).

Across from her, a young woman invited passers-by to fling eggs at photographs of Al Gore. This was the booth of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, an organisation devoted to the premise that carbon-based fuels are not to blame for global warming and that the free market can correct any naturally occurring "cyclical" temperature changes. A man walked by and asked why they had eggs and not guns. The woman laughed: "We thought of that but, you know, the media."

At the GOProud table, two young men in suits looked a little nervous, despite the official line that they were welcome. When I approached, they had just explained what GOProud was to a middle-aged man who turned from friendly to flustered to hostile. He didn't realise he was going to be missing the best CPAC party of the weekend, hosted by the right-wing internet and video impresario Andrew Breitbart at DC's 18th Street Lounge, with the leaders of GOProud. The motto was "Liberal in bed, conservative in the head".

The only big personality missing - besides Reagan - was the former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin. Some suggested that she had joined the boycott of CPAC led by those opposed to the presence of GOProud, but Palin has flatly denied this. By the second day, a Palin impersonator was wandering the halls in black, knee-high platform boots, trailed by cameras and a pair of young men who kept murmuring, "This way, governor."
Citizens United, an organisation dedicated to "restoring" the US government to "citizens' control", unveiled its latest project: Fire from the Heartland: the Awakening of the Conservative Woman. The 84-minute film focuses on a group of right-wing women whose patriotism in 2010 "fanned the flames of liberty across the nation". Its director, Stephen K Bannon, told me how he had selected the women for his film and how he had "toned them down [and] put them in black dresses" to soften the shrillness that has undermined conservative commentators such as Ann Coulter.

Typical of the new female face of the right is S E Cupp, a bespectacled New York University graduate, who, at the age of 32, is a regular guest on various right-leaning radio shows and Fox News. The self-described "atheist conservative", who likes to talk about her love of meat, was wearing a black leather skirt and tight blouse with a tie. Cupp is nominally against abortion, but the rights of the foetus were not her priority here.
Like the other rising female stars at the convention, from Noem to the Tea Party women behind the not-for-profit organisation Smart Girl Politics, she seemed reluctant to admit that she was concerned about anything apart from the national debt and her desire to keep tax money out of the government's fist.

Campus battle

To bolster young people, conservatives are working hard on campuses across the US. The right has long complained that progressives have a "PC stranglehold" on student discourse. The whining continued at CPAC 2011, despite the Republicans' success in the midterms and last year's victory for the right at the Supreme Court, which removed limits on the corporate financing of campaigns.

The conference gave an award to the conservative professor Jan Blits of the University of Delaware, who has made a career out of exposing ways in which colleges "vilify white males for their privilege", as he put it in his acceptance speech. Blits chaired a panel on the subject, at which a lawyer stood up and said: "To paraphrase that left-wing singer Bob Dylan, 'You gotta serve somebody.' We need to start serving college administrators with papers! A lawsuit a day helps keep the liberals away!"

The American right is eager to provide role models for young people who might be tempted to think that it's not cool to be conservative. Cupp has lent her face to a clever campus effort at the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute to entice young women away from the feminist fold. The project frames Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues as vulgar, feminist propaganda. The posters read: "We empower. It degrades."

By Saturday morning, the "Luce Ladies" were doing thriving business. Miss June, one of the stars of their "great American conservative women" calendar - otherwise known as Michelle Duggar - was on hand to sign autographs. Duggar is an Arkansas mother of 19, and stars in a reality show with her husband Jim Bob called 19 Kids and Counting. Her calendar caption reads: "Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is His reward."

Among the young women lining up to meet her was Alyssa, a junior studying political science at James Madison University in Virginia. When she reached the front of the line, Alyssa gushed: "Your family is just so inspiring. Thank you for showing that it's OK for women like me to be stay-at-home moms." As if anyone had told her otherwise.

Nina Burleigh is a writer and journalist. Her latest book, "The Fatal Gift of Beauty", will be published by Random House in August.

This article appears in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?