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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — There is an undisputed star at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference — one name popping up on stage and off at the nation's top gathering of movement conservatives, one politician whose big-policy push on the Hill has captured activists' imagination.
It isn't President Donald Trump and his border wall. It's Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and her Green New Deal.
"With AOC we can't take her for granted. We can't think that the American people understand what Socialism is. We do have to go out and educate," Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on Thursday.
Ocasio-Cortez "is the thought leader of the Democratic Party right now," insisted Fox News host Laura Ingraham. "She is setting the Democrats' foreign policy table" and the agenda for the party's 2020 presidential contenders.
Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is "a watermelon," said former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka: "It's green on the outside, deep, deep red communist on the inside" and "what Stalin dreamt about, but never achieved."
"With this Green New Deal, they're trying to get rid of all the cows," the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., warned the crowd, to hearty boos — although, he assured them, the push means people will just eat more chicken and "Chick-fil-A stock will way go up!"
Describing top Democrats as closet socialists is a venerated CPAC tradition, with Ocasio-Cortez this year filling the perennial slot held in the recent past by figures such as former President Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Unlike them, Ocasio-Cortez takes center stage despite holding no leadership role in the party or near-term presidential ambitions.
Another difference unsettling some speakers here: She doesn't dismiss the socialist label — she embraces it.
And so she was everywhere this week, featured in alarmist on-stage remarks and splashy video presentations, passionate off-stage discussions, and multiple breakout panels with titles such as "AOC's Green New Deal: Debunking the Climate Alarmism Behind Bringing Full Socialism to America" and "How the Left Does It: Money, People, Technology & How They Sell Socialism with a Smile."
One video screened for the crowd featured color-altered footage of the congresswoman dancing outside her Hill office, drawing a response from Ocasio-Cortez herself.
"GOP defensively say, 'we’re not scared of dancing women!' yet proceed to use footage of me dancing 'with the color drained to make it look more ominous,'" she tweeted, with a laughing emoji. "Spoiler: The GOP *is* scared of dancing women..."
But despite the current of conference concern over her rise, some rank-and-file conservatives on hand said they weren't worried about the New York lawmaker or her signature policy push.
Madeleine Hubbard, president of the University of Illinois chapter of Turning Point USA, said that unlike many fellow Republicans, she didn't see Ocasio-Cortez's package of proposed environmental policies as "an actual threat — it's really just an empty resolution."
CPAC attendee Bobby Walker agreed. "I think it's just a lot of crazy nonsense. I think she just kind of put it out there because it's just something to put out there," he said.
Some said Ocasio-Cortez was getting too much credit. Much of her agenda has "been around before her, it'll been around after her. I don't know why she's getting the total credit of it," said Vincent Mastantuno, a senior at Suffolk University in Massachusetts. "If anything, it's Jill Stein's movement."
Others offered disagreement mixed with grudging respect. The Green New Deal has become "a bit of a punching bag because it is so, I'd say, out there," said Adam Houser, national collegians director for Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which promotes conservative environmental policies. "I'll give AOC this, in that it's bold. I disagree with it, a lot, but it's bold, so I think it becomes a lightning rod."
Either way, they said, she wasn't likely to fade from the scene anytime soon — in part because conservatives weren't about to let that happen.
"She's becoming the wrong face of the Democratic Party," said Gina Roberts, vice chairperson of the Log Cabin Republicans of California and the first transgender delegate of the state's party. "I think it's a good face for us to be going up against."