By Schuyler Kropf
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott upped his national profile by getting one of the lead-off speaking slots Thursday at the season's largest gathering of conservatives - the CPAC conference outside Washington.
Focusing on education, the South Carolina Republican drew applause when he told the Conservative Political Action Conference that school choice is a parental right.
"Parents, and not bureaucrats in Washington, should decide the path of their child's education," Scott said.
"They should be free to choose home schooling, public schools, charter schools, parochial schools," he said. "Because when the parents have the choice, the kids have a chance."
CPAC is one of the largest Republican gatherings of the year, expected to draw more than 10,000 people, along with party presidential hopefuls, to a meeting near the nation's capital. It is widely viewed as the must-do gathering for those with higher party aspirations.
Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are among the featured speakers, as is former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel, described the event as a place to hear the "rock stars" of the GOP, putting Scott in good company among the conservative base, he said.
"He gets some national exposure and that never hurts you as a politician," Buchanan said.
Scott spoke during a 15-minute window. He spoke of growing up in North Charleston and his poor academic performance in school.
He said education thinking should be reformed, and that not every child should be directed into a one-size-fits-all path.
"Every child doesn't want to go to college," he said, adding "we should have a dual track: one for college and one for the skills necessary to fill the 4 million (job) vacancies we have in America."
Scott finished his address by giving a shout-out to other conservative lawmakers, specifically mentioning Ryan and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire.
Beyond Scott's address, Republican leaders used the event to implore that conservatives offer a stark contrast to President Barack Obama's policies and stand firm on principles as a way to win back Senate control in the fall elections and prepare for the 2016 presidential campaign.
"You win elections by standing for principle and inspiring people that there is a better tomorrow," said Cruz.
Ryan of Wisconsin, Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, downplayed divisions within the party as "creative tension" and urged conservative activists to "give each other the benefit of the doubt" in the debate over the party's future.
Christie, facing conservatives who have been slow to embrace him, received applause throughout a speech that highlighted his opposition to abortion and stressed the importance of getting results. "We don't get to govern if we don't win," Christie said.
The New Jersey governor wasn't invited to last year's conference but had the chance to make his first public address in the Washington area since a political retribution scandal erupted in January. He made no reference to the scandal but criticized media coverage of Republicans, a strategy that plays well among tea party supporters and could help his standing among skeptical conservatives.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, trying to stare down a tea party primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin in Kentucky, arrived on stage holding a rifle aloft. He then presented it to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a favorite of conservatives, who received the National Rifle Association's "Courage Under Fire" lifetime achievement award.
The event comes one year after Republican officials released a comprehensive plan to broaden the GOP's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season. But the party is far from united as it looks to the future. The conference is expected to showcase intraparty divisions on foreign policy, political strategy and social issues.
The debate could weigh heavily on the November midterm elections, which will decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill for the final two years of Obama's presidency.