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"Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson at the Republican Leadership Conference Thursday (WND photo)

NEW ORLEANS – The divide in the Republican Party between the conservative base and leadership in Washington willing to compromise with Obama Democrats is apparent at this year’s Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

At a meeting of Republican faithful that includes party activists, top money contributors and party professionals, the establishment figureheads, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, are notably absent.

In an event the GOP billed as the “unofficial kickoff” of the 2016 presidential campaign, only Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was present to hear “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson receive round after round of enthusiastic applause for admonishing Republicans to return to the Bible and the fundamental principles of freedom upon which the nation was founded.

The explanation provided by a paid, full-time spokesman for the GOP, who asked to remain anonymous, was simple.

“When you get the Republican base together, the majority are conservatives,” he said. “It’s the leadership that’s running scared.”

Headlining the RLC program are stalwarts of the Republican Party’s conservative wing, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, president of the Family Research Council Tony Perkins and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Also present are 2012 presidential candidates Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The RLC even dared to invite Donald Trump, who recently gained notoriety once again by returning to themes that make the GOP leadership in the nation’s capital cringe. Trump told the National Press Club Tuesday that he offered to give to a charity of Barack Obama’s choice $50 million if only the president would allow the release of his college records, along with any original 1961 birth documents the Hawaii Department of Health still claims to have hidden away.

On Friday, as the RLC commenced its second day, the news broke from Washington that House Republicans had decided to postpone a floor vote on the their health-reform proposal. GOP candidates backed by the leadership are dropping from their campaign speeches the rallying cry to repeal Obamacare.

The contrast to the three GOP contenders seeking to defeat Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., could not have been sharper.

All three challengers – Louisiana state Rep. Paul Hollis; Rep. Bill Cassidy, representing Baton Rouge in the U.S. House; and Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel – in their scheduled speeches have criticized Landrieu for voting for Obamacare.

RLC attendees have stood up, applauded, cheered and whistled virtually every time a speaker comes close to calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which was passed in Congress without a single Republican vote.

In her surprise appearance, former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin introduced “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson as “an educator and church elder who inspires others to be bold and embrace family.”

Palin got shouts of approval when she asked the audience if they would rather be in New Orleans “with Phil Robertson and his ducks and gators, hanging out with our God, our guns and our Constitution,” or back in Washington, D.C., hanging out with Barack Obama as he undertakes his “fundamental transformation of America.”

Palin objected in clear terms.

“We don’t need any direct transformation of America, we need ‘We the People’ to fundamentally reform and restore all that is good about America,” she said.

Palin went so far as to suggest Robertson should not be merely “duck commander,” but “duck commander in chief.”

When Robertson spoke, the conference transformed into more of an old-time revival meeting as he castigated Democrats for supporting abortion and the “separation of church and state” doctrine that has removed God from public schools. He insisted the United States was founded “not by religionists, but by Christians.”

The RLC’s sessions Thursday and Friday both opened not just with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the thousands of attendees standing with bowed heads to invocations calling on Jesus Christ for guidance.

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