Salena Zito

WASHINGTON -- The party of Ronald Reagan is alive and well, and it includes the voices of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee -- even “Joe the Plumber.”

That was the message out of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the annual conservative conference historically held at the Omni Shoreham hotel here.

Gingrich, the retired House speaker and conservative guru, said this year’s CPAC, which ended Saturday, was the largest in three decades, with nearly 9,000 attendees.

"Conservatives certainly have more a lot more energy, creativity and ideas this year opposing the Obama agenda than they sure did supporting the Bush administration," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based media strategist. Gerow is on the board of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC.

Not confined by the Bush political message or machine, conservatives are freer to explore a better way to lead and govern the country, Gerow said.

Meeting the past three days in the shadows of a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress, attendees debated what it means to be a conservative in the era of President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

After losing the 2006 congressional midterm and 2008 presidential elections, they did not lack for debate over how to make conservatism relevant again.

President Obama's near-$800 billion economic stimulus package and newly proposed $3.6 trillion budget prompted plenty of discussion as well.

Internet technology was the big buzz here, as bloggers lined the hotel’s lobbies and halls, reporting and “Twittering” conference details.

"The biggest thing that Republicans should avoid is to become the party of no," said Mark Siegel, a D.C.-based Democratic strategist.

Siegel, who served in the Carter administration and has advised Democratic candidates during their own lean years, offered Republicans unsolicited advice: Instead of always saying “no” to Obama, Pelosi and Reid, a better approach for them is to say, "yes, but ... ."

CPAC’s conservative all-star line-up included Gingrich, former Republican governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas; conservative radio talk-show giant Rush Limbaugh, and Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio plumber who became a last-minute slogan of the 2008 race. Romney won a straw poll as best GOP candidate for 2012.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.