WASHINGTON — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference came to a raucous and buoyant end Saturday as thousands of Tea Party activists cheered on former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who closed the gathering with a full-throated denunciation of President Obama and urged conservatives to embrace their views more fiercely than ever.
But over the course of its three days, the event put on display how factions within the Republican Party are still struggling to find a path out of the wilderness, illuminating the gap between the GOP’s resolutely conservative grass-roots and a party leadership eager for a more moderate approach.
Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, a Republican and actor who appeared on a panel, said the gathering was especially indicative of growing tensions on immigration reform and foreign policy and was one of many meetings in the past year where the GOP’s base has met to toast their favorites while remaining unsettled on an agenda.
‘‘CPAC doesn’t make any pretension of speaking for the party, but we’re seeing these fluid debates and there is no clear consensus,’’ he said. ‘‘The attitude here is: Let a thousand flowers bloom.’’
On Thursday, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — an avowed hawk — laid out his foreign policy vision, drawing a warm reception from the older members but closed hands from the libertarian students sitting in the back rows.
‘‘Quite frankly, we would much rather just focus on our lives here,’’ Rubio said. ‘‘But we cannot ignore the reality of who we are.’’
A day later, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who won the conference’s presidential straw poll for a second straight year, drew a contrast with Rubio and other hawks who spoke, such as former UN ambassador John Bolton, arguing for a less aggressive national security policy, with particularly sharp criticism of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
‘‘We will not trade our liberty for security,’’ Paul said, as his supporters toted red ‘‘Stand With Rand’’ posters.
On immigration, CPAC organizers, led by pro-immigration-reform attorney Al Cardenas, held sessions encouraging continued reform efforts on Capitol Hill. But they quarreled with critics of reform, irking grass-roots leaders who were not invited to speak.
‘‘You don’t have to read the tea leaves,’’ grumbled Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group opposed to the Senate’s bill overhauling immigration policy. ‘‘Immigration skeptics have been pushed out.’’
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was greeted with roaring approval Saturday when she warned conservatives not to engage with Democrats seeking a bipartisan immigration plan. ‘‘The last thing conservatives should do is help the president pass his number-one goal, and that’s amnesty,’’ she said.
Elsewhere, rather than offering a vivid display of the differing perspectives within the party, CPAC was more a celebration of conservative darlings past and present, with the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre, businessman Donald Trump, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas offering heaping chunks of red meat to a packed ballroom at the Gaylord Hotel in suburban Washington.
Lines were frequently drawn not so much on policy, but on tactics and posture, with Cruz and others blaming the party’s leadership’s strategy for the GOP’s electoral woes. The party’s leadership, in response, seemed humbled by the pressure.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, appeared on a Saturday panel, voicing solidarity with conservatives and making little mention of the RNC’s initiative to soften the party’s edge.
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, in a Thursday speech, explained away the tumult seen within the Republican Party as part of the party’s recovery process following the 2012 election.
‘‘The way the left tells it, the Republican Party is in this big, massive civil war,’’ he said. ‘‘Look, I’m Irish. That’s my idea of a family reunion.’’