Ahead of her address Saturday to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which kicks off today at Maryland's National Harbor, the likeness of the 2008 vice presidential nominee sits emblazoned atop the homepage of the convention's website, surrounded by similar busts of Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Block text above them reads: "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives."
It's curious company for Palin, who for four years has wandered on and off the national stage in controversial bursts, encouraging conservatives to "reload" against Democrats as well as some within their own ilk and accusing President Obama of "palling around" with domestic terrorists. Several months ago, the former Alaska governor's stardom seemed all but dead: On the first night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last fall, she was serving baked beans at an Arizona barbecue dive; in January, Fox News cut its ties with her.
Now she's on tap to speak at arguably the most who's-who affair in conservative politics.
On a roster boasting a flurry of likely 2016 contenders - Rubio, Paul and Ryan, included - where does Sarah Palin fit in? She doesn't, one GOP strategist said - but neither does Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee slated to speak Friday afternoon whose "moderate" platform many Tea Party groups blamed for the ticket's loss in November.
"It's all over the place," longtime GOP consultant Ron Bonjean said of the speaker lineup. From Palin to Romney to Rubio, he continued, "CPAC is sending a lot of mixed messages here. I think [Romney's invitation] was to be nice, but I would guess people would rather look forward than backward. And every single speaker they choose is a statement of where they'd like to see the direction of the party go.
"It's completely confusing," he continued. "But the disorganization, I think, in some ways is very symbolic of the Republican Party looking to define itself as it goes through its own identity crisis."
That identity crisis - which since the formation of the far-right Tea Party in 2009 has gradually inched the party toward the brink of civil war - is further emphasized by the two popular Republican governors who didn't make the guest list: New Jersey's Chris Christie and Virginia's Bob McDonnell.arguing that by signing up with the federal government for Medicaid expansion and rallying alongside the president for a $60-billion-plus "pork" bill for superstorm Sandy relief, Christie had not "earned his wings."
"We felt that Governor Christie, a crowd favorite at previous CPACs, was not particularly deserving this year," Cardenas wrote to the Washington Post. "I have said that CPAC is like an 'All Star' game for conservatives. Even players that have great careers in baseball don't make it to the All Star game every year. I hope he earns an invitation next year. But, everyone must keep in mind that we are not the Republican Party - we are conservatives."
McDonnell's most likely transgression, though Cardenas has not confirmed it, is his recent support for a transportation package that stipulated a sales tax hike. Meantime his attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli - a longtime favorite of the Tea Party - opens CPAC's festivities this morning.
But it's not as simple as the Tea Party versus the Republican establishment, Bonjean said. The number of shades on the conservative continuum and the subtleness between them show a far more fractured movement.
On the CPAC lineup, Palin, once an electric trailblazer for the Tea Party, can be lumped not with the far-right grassroots types, but with firebrands like Donald Trump, the real estate mogul-turned-reality TV star set to speak Friday morning. "Those speakers show that the organization is looking to grab sensationalistic headlines through speakers that will likely say over-the-top statement in front of hundreds of reporters, rather than have a real, serious discussion about the direction of the party," Bonjean said.
Then there's Paul, who's expected to sweep the conference's straw poll in the footsteps left by his likeminded libertarian father, former Texas Rep. and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. In his first year in the Senate, the younger Paul founded the Tea Party caucus, a nod to his hands-off government roots. His nearly 13-hour filibuster against drone strikes on U.S. soil last week, though, drew praise from Republicans and Democrats across the board who lauded him for returning to regular order on the floor.
But there's also the "moderate," "centrist," "evolving" Republicans, like Romney, but perhaps modeled best by former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who as expected did not receive an invitation to speak. Unable to find his footing in the 2012 presidential primary, the pro-civil unions candidate who believed in climate change - two points he opened with during an unsuccessful appearance at an election-related Florida CPAC event - dropped out of the race and levied an unofficial boycott on the party.
This year, the conference's decision to ban the gay Republican group GOProud has drawn criticism from conservatives saying the movement is heading in the wrong direction on social issues.
Despite the countless gradations, though, there's an inarguable divide on CPAC's agenda between those active and future leaders who have carved their positions in stone, and those who have made clear their desire to work toward ending the years-long Washington gridlock.
On one side: Former senator and almost-presidential nominee Rick Santorum, whose willfulness on social issues attracted a following to counter Romney's momentum; former Rep. Allen West, a Tea Party darling who campaigned for a recount for weeks after his loss in November; and Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots who the day after the general election lambasted Romney as "a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party."
On the other side: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who recently rallied for a recasting of the party's image and endorsed immigration principles of the Dream Act; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who last summer turned a corner on "hyper-partisan" politicians and called the GOP "shortsighted;" and Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., who at a Republican retreat in January said, "We've got to stop being the stupid party," and called on his fellow conservatives to start talking "like adults."
Former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., who rushed to condone Jindal's sentiment, told Politico recently there's too much at stake for a badly splintered Republican Party."We all need to be singing from same hymnal," he said. "When the other side has the megaphone of the White House, it makes it all the more important that your side sticks together on message and has more message discipline. We have to have moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, neo-con Republicans, Tea Party people all saying, 'Here are the thing we agree on and that we should emphasize.'"