The first thing you notice about CPAC, the conservative answer to Comic Con, are the lines.
The lines are everywhere. Snaking up the escalators of the massive, airy Prince Georges County, Md., Gaylord National Harbor Resort and Convention Center and down the carpeted hallways, bodies blocking out the waves of the Potomac River lapping outside the center's massive glass atrium.
At the end of the second floor is another endless line for press check-in, where a crunchy-haired Atlantic reporter deftly cuts in front of me.
"Is this really the line?" she complains to a group of Daily Beast reporters ahead of me. "I thought we get special treatment for this stuff."
CPAC not letting in me, Ward, Byron York to watch Cruz. Can't listen by door, either. Tell us all to wait in lengthy line or else. Odd.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 6, 2014
The lines for registration stretch all the way down Radio Row, past the announcers in headphones breathlessly describing the scene (which, at 8:30 a.m., is really just people waiting in lines) and past the massive ballroom, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will later brandish a rifle above his head as Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer" blares from the speakers.
Nearby, a set of all-American bros in matching bowties and American flag bathing suits pose for photos. It's not clear what political expertise they're offering to the viewers at home beyond their straight teeth and impeccably broken-in dock shoes, but reporters keep approaching them in droves.
The ballroom is the focal point of the event. Because new high-profile conservative speakers rotate onstage at break-neck pace (even the bloviating Ted Cruz is limited to 16 minutes), most attendees stay inside.
For the more adventurous, there's the "CPAC Hub," a fun euphemism for a swag room where anyone can scoop up Citizens United coffee mugs and NRA baseball caps as they play beanbag toss into a barrel marked "Pork." Chewbaccas and stormtroopers roam the floor. Near a table for the Charles Koch Institute, a burly man turns to the attractive blonde on duty and jokes, "Any enemy of Harry Reid is a friend of mine." She smiles, but not with her eyes.
There are also workshops, like the "How to Make Friends and Influence People at CPAC 2014," which promises to teach attendees to "maximize their online footprint" by providing them with a list of people to follow on Twitter.
But what isn't immediately obvious is why people shelled out hundreds of dollars to trek down to National Harbor, Maryland, just across the river from Washington, D.C. Mostly, it just seems like they want someone to talk to.
"I live in Washington, I've worked for years in Washington," Virginia resident Kevin Pigott tells me as he collects signatures for a Congressional run. "There's a heavy liberal bias, you know, cocktail parties you have to limit the conversation a lot. No religion, no politics. It's suffocating. This isn't suffocating."
But as much as attendees say they want to talk about "the issues," there's not a lot of discussion.
Not that I don't try. When I ask Jack Neely, an older attendee wearing an NRA sticker, how he feels about the rise of gay marriage, he replies: "Absolutely not. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Simple as that. Everyone is not promised to, uh, to, uh, everyone is not given... Anyway...."
But how do man-on-man or woman-on-woman marriages harm the "traditional" kinds?
"How does gay marriage hurt traditional marriage? I haven't got an answer for you today on that."
I spot a college-age kid who looks like Augustus Gloop all growed up. Could he explain Benghazi to me? "Uh, Benghazi?" he says, confused. "I don't answer questions about that without the advice of my legal counsel."
He runs away across the swag room to an NRA booth.
Another attendee, John Osbourne, a political science student, sounds like he knows all about Obamacare.
"I'm a little under read on [healthcare] but overall I'd say it's negative since it limits choice," he says. When I ask him about the Dodd-Frank law, he says he isn't familiar.
And therein lies the inherent problem with CPAC, which often seems to amount to little more than a soundbite. Ted Cruz's reference to the law—"We need to repeal Dodd-Frank, a bill you only have to read the title to know no good can come from this."—drew some of the biggest laughs of his speech, despite the fact that Chris Dodd basically bankrolled the conference that he was addressing. Or the cheers when Donald Trump, who couldn't even be bothered to fact-check his speech, declared Jimmy Carter was dead (he's not). But it explains why the biggest round of applause of the morning speeches came for Senator Tim Scott's line: "We don't want Obama telling us how many calories are in our pizza."
[Photo of McConnell via Getty; top photo by Gabrielle Bluestone]