But some former leaders of the American Conservative Union say Mr. Schlapp refocused the event from a broad spectrum of conservative debate to the fringes of Trumpism. As mainstream corporate sponsors like Google and Facebook moved away from the event, Mr. Schlapp courted companies more associated with Mr. Trump’s brand of politics.
Figures once banned from the event — including Jack Posobiec, a far-right commentator known for promoting the PizzaGate conspiracy theory — landed featured speaking slots. And the conference was expanded and exported into multiple events throughout the year, in more than one state and in other countries, including those with autocratic leaders, such as Hungary and Brazil.
Al Cardenas, Mr. Schlapp’s predecessor at the American Conservative Union, said he barely recognizes the organization he once led.
“There’s been a significant transition on the board away from conservatives,” Mr. Cardenas said. “The disappointment to me about CPAC has been so grand that I’ve just buried it.”
Founded in 1974, CPAC evolved over the decades from a small gathering of conservative thinkers to attracting thousands of activists, party leaders and elected officials. Often called “Woodstock for conservatives,” the conference aimed to capture the mood of the Republican base, with spirited debates over foreign policy, taxes, spending, abortion rights, immigration and other hot-button policy issues. It was a place where establishment politicians went to bolster their right-wing bona fides and conservatives showed up to try to become stars.
CPAC was once so strict about conservative credentials that in 2007 the organization declined to invite Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was then running for president and performing well in early polls, because he supported abortion rights. When Mr. Romney spoke before the activists in 2012, he played up his record as a “severely conservative” governor. The phrase was mocked at the time but became a shorthand for the former Massachusetts governor’s attempts to convince the base he was conservative enough to be their presidential nominee.
“We got Reagan, Gingrich and Bush and Kemp,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who began attending CPAC in the 1970s. “Then, as opposed to now, it was the must place to be. For a week, it was the center of the conservative universe.”