NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It took almost 12 hours for a speaker at the biggest conservative confab of the year to get to the crux of one of the fiercest debates raging right now in Washington.
Most of the GOP presidential hopefuls on the Conservative Political Action Conference's (CPAC) agenda made passing mention of or, as in the case of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, actively avoided talking about net neutrality.
It wasn't until after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin spoke—and most of the ballroom had filtered out to start the night's festivities—that Michelle Connolly, an economics professor at Duke University, gave the remaining red-meat audience something to chew on.
"Net neutering" is how she described the Federal Communication Commission's landmark, 3-2 decision on Thursday to approve strong "net neutrality" rules.
"The FCC is claiming that it is supporting net neutrality but they are not making anything neutral or fair," Connolly said.
"What they are doing is making it possible for the FCC to decide what is neutral and fair whenever they feel like it. They are making it possible for the FCC to impose new taxes on the Internet, to impose new obligations, and to basically impose anything that the FCC eventually decides that it wants to impose on this industry."
Net neutrality—or "neutering," as these conservatives may prefer—will be a continuous topic of heated debate in the Republican Party, if the crowd here is any indication. But for now, it remains ambiguous where the party's most ambitious presidential hopefuls stand on the issue.
CPAC's official agenda contained no speeches or panels devoted specifically to the issue, something that disappointed many young attendees. Some of the attendees suggested GOP candidates missed an opportunity by avoiding the topic.
"It's a pretty big issue," said Austin Borchardt, a 19-year-old student at Ripon College. "I'm not very well-informed about it, so I wish I had heard more."
Austin Samuelson, a 20-year-old student from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Conn., said it's an especially important topic for young people that have basically grown up with the Internet.
"We've grown up with computers. We're the first ones to have phones that have the capability of getting on the Internet," Samuelson said.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO considering a run for president, noted in passing net neutrality along with the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill as examples of big-government-gone-bad.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a rising favorite among the conservative base, punted on the issue when asked about it during a question-and-answer session on Thursday. He pivoted to an answer about "freedom" as a universal guiding principle.
"Well, those are the sorts of things we're going to talk about going forward should I choose to be a candidate," Walker said. "But I think on that or any other principle, to me, the guiding principle should be freedom."
Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), the most popular candidate here among the younger, more libertarian-leaning crowd, stayed away from the topic.
So the most substantive discussion of the issue on the first two days of the most important conservative conference of the year was left to the afterthought after Palin.
Said Connolly, the Duke economics professor: "What is happening today is not only a huge regulatory grab on the part of the FCC, but they are also imposing this heavy handed utility regulation, much of which was written in the 1930s."
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.