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American conservatives unite! That's the rallying cry of the 50-year-old American Conservative Union that is holding its big Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington this weekend.

And it's an impressive gathering: Every potential candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for president is here.

Outside the main auditorium the halls of this convention centre on the Potomac are people from all over the country. They come in every shape and size: The tallest man in the crowd is sporting an orange and turquoise Mokawk, several women proudly wear T-shirts saying they Stand with Rand (despite the convention ban on political campaign material).

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While the famous Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is one of the main sponsors, it's more than just a Tea Party affair.

In the exhibition hall there are booths for the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and for Recognize the Equality of Puerto Rico. Pictures of two-term Republican president Ronald Reagan are everywhere, though nowhere to be found is a single picture of the other recent two-term Republican president George W. Bush.

The conference opened Thursday with an address by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who called for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service; it heard from Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Donald Trump.

But it was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the U.S. answer to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who stole the show and got the biggest headlines.

Gov. Christie was pointedly not invited to last year's conference because he had publicly praised U.S. President Barack Obama for federal support during the 2012 floods that hit New Jersey.

This year, after it was revealed that his staff had carried out dirty tricks against political rivals, such as closing lanes to cars trying to cross over the main bridge to New York, that he was embraced again.

Friday's lineup includes Texas Governor Rick Perry who called for "a little rebellion" by conservatives to get the government out of health care and the classroom, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the Republican Party's staunchest social conservative, who called the Obama government's treatment of Israel "a disgrace."

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But it is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul who looks to be the star of this show.

He speaks Friday afternoon, but his name is mentioned by almost every speaker for one reason or another.

As the leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, he is accused by his rivals of being too extreme, but his ideas of limiting the use of U.S. military power and ending the government's surveillance of its own citizens are being debated here.

Despite the ACU's rallying cry, U.S. conservatives remain badly divided and it shows.

In one panel discussion, Edward Snowden, the former security official who leaked mountains of documents on government excess, was described by libertarians as a "hero" and by the defence-oriented conservatives as a "traitor." The audience was equally divided.

The one thing conservatives do agree on is the sacredness of the Second Amendment to the Constitution – the right to bear arms. The conference exhibition halls are sponsored by the National Rifle Association and one speaker, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader strode to the stage Thursday carrying a rifle.

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Mr. McConnell is considered out of touch with the Tea Party conservative values and used the rifle to make the point he's seen the light and told the largely critical audience "I won't let you down." The rifle had been presented earlier to retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, considered a conservative icon.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Can Libertarians Co-exist with Social Conservatives? is the topic of another panel discussion.

That issue is abundantly clear when it comes to the twin "sins" of gay rights and atheism.

Three years ago a Republican gay rights organization called GOProud was not allowed to have a booth in the conference's exhibition hall, nor were atheists allowed to spread their views of religion.

This year both are back, in a manner of speaking. When it was learned last month that GOProud was to be permitted a chance to distribute its material in favour of gay marriage among other things, several social conservative groups such as the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) protested so loudly the ACU organizers were forced to renege and instead invited GOProud to be a "guest" of the conference, free to wander the halls but not have an exhibition booth.

As for the atheists who had wanted to be among the exhibitors, they didn't even get a sniff, though several are reported to have bought tickets and are present.

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Libertarians, such as Mr. Paul, support both of these groups having freedom of expression, while socials conservatives such as Mr. Huckabee rebel at their ideas. Some groups such as Liberty University, a college established by the late Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority organization, dissociated itself from the conference, pulling its sponsorship three years ago when GOProud first appeared. It hasn't been back.

Score it Christians 2, lions nothing.

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