— By

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Emboldened by a belief that their political fortunes are on the rise, conservative activists descended Thursday on the capital city they love to hate, seeking to stoke what they see as a grass-roots uprising against President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

The annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee began as a venue for the right fringe of the Republican Party but has matured in recent years, drawing more mainstream party figures and providing a stage for presidential aspirants to prove their conservative credentials.

This year’s CPAC, which opened Thursday, had the feel of a festival, as thousands of jubilant activists turned the Marriott Wardman Park ballroom into a hive of old-guard conservatives and don’t-tread-on-me tea partiers hungry for new leaders and messages that can carry the GOP out of the political wilderness.

It was, in the words of one speaker, ”our Woodstock.”

Featured speakers in the opening session included former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who sought to turn the page on his failed 2008 presidential campaign by casting himself as a populist and every bit the conservative standard-bearer. He defended the policies of former President George W. Bush and his party’s lockstep opposition to Obama’s agenda, saying Obama had ”failed” and that the Democratic majority in Congress would ”soon be out the door.”

”If these liberal neo-monarchists succeed, they will kill the very spirit that has built the nation — the innovating, inventing, creating, independent current that runs from coast to coast,” Romney said. Pounding on the lectern as the audience leapt to its feet, Romney declared: ”And we won’t let ’em do it.”

The audience stomped and screamed at the appearance of the surprise guest who introduced Romney: Scott Brown.

”I’m the newly elected Republican senator from Massachusetts,” Brown said. ”Let me just say that one more time. I am the Republican senator from Massachusetts!”

Former Vice President Dick Cheney also made an unscheduled appearance, bounding out from behind the dark curtain at the end of a speech by his daughter, Liz. He received a hero’s welcome, to cries of ”Run, Dick, Run!”

”Knock it off,” Cheney quipped. ”A welcome like that’s almost enough to make we want to run for office, but I’m not gonna do it.”

Since the days of Richard Nixon, CPAC has served as an annual gathering of conservative thinkers. But now, a half century later, it has become an important venue for any ambitious Republican, and this year’s agenda features a roster of potential presidential hopefuls. In addition to Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., will speak Friday, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich will speak Saturday, before the results of a presidential straw poll are released. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is not scheduled to be among the attendees, however.

The gathering continues to draw it’s share of firebrands. Dana Loesch, a St. Louis radio host and a tea party leader there, challenged conservatives to organize in unexpected ways — over burgers and brews at bars where liberals congregate or by starting ”flash mobs.” Longtime National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre gave an impassioned tribute to Charlton Heston, the late actor and NRA president.

And at a time of strife within the Republican Party, which lacks a clear national leader and is struggling to unite behind a common agenda as the critical November midterm elections approach, one theme emerged in each speech Thursday: attack Obama.

”When it comes to pinning blame, pin the tail on the donkeys,” Romney told the thousands gathered for his speech.

By 10:30 a.m., the conservative movement had already seemed to crown its latest darling: Marco Rubio, a 38-year-old son of Cuban immigrants running an outsider’s campaign in Florida for U.S. Senate. The audience showered Rubio with ecstatic applause as he ruminated in a keynote address on American exceptionalism and his own improbable personal journey.

”It’s sometimes easy to forget how special America really is,” said Rubio, making his debut on the national stage. ”But I was raised by exiles, by people who know what it is like to lose their country, by people who have a unique perspective on why elections matter, or lack thereof, by people who clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world. … What makes America great is that there are dreams that are impossible everywhere else but are possible here.”

Rubio is locked in a hotly contested Republican primary against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a race that has pitted the conservative grass-roots, which embraces Rubio, against the more moderate party establishment.