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GOP split between past and future at CPAC's first day

It was split personality Thursday at the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, where panelists who favored immigration reform shared the same stage with conservatives who continued to question the Obama administration's explanation for Benghazi.

The conservative movement's reformists got their time in the spotlight, but so did figures who continue to hew to Republican orthodoxy — a display of the identity crisis that has plagued the GOP following successive losses in two presidential elections.

Take, for instance, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's speech early this afternoon, in which he said conservative principles "still work."

"Our challenge is to create an agenda," he said, "applying our time-tested principles to the challenges of today."

The speaker immediately following him, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (who, like Rubio, is thought of as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016), struck a different note.

He told conference attendees that "the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," suggesting that the party was ripe for re-invention. (It's new direction, Paul said, involved "going forward to the classical and timeless ideas.")

Nonetheless, their speeches were symptomatic of the identity crisis from which the conservative movement is currently suffering.

The same conference that hosted a panel on offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship — regarded as a politically forward-thinking proposal for Republicans — featured another rehashing the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya, dwelling on conspiracy theories about the Obama administration's response to those attacks.

The CPAC scene was no less full of its knocks on the media, or vendors peddling radio shows or magazines for conference attendees.

The first day of CPAC saw a movement being beckoned toward the future, but with its heels dragging firmly in the past.