Republicans audition for Presidential contest
STEVE PEOPLES AND KEN THOMAS
Early auditions for the Republican Party's next presidential contest are in full swing at the largest US annual gathering of conservative activists, where ex-presidential candidates and a few new potential White House contenders tried out their speeches.
Speakers on the second day of the Conservative Political Action included three former presidential candidates known for promoting social conservative values - Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was also to take the stage, setting up a clash of ideas between the libertarian-minded activists who generally flock to the conservative conference and the party's religious wing.
All four men have left open the possibility of running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 - a contest expected to begin in earnest in about a year.
More than two years before the election to succeed President Barack Obama, there's no clear front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Republicans have much to mend before 2016, starting with a stark ideological divide between the party's establishment and the super-conservatives who rose to power in the tea party-fueled 2010 elections that delivered a Republican House majority.
The conservative conference comes less than a year after the Republican National Committee released a comprehensive plan to broaden the party's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season.
Tea party activists are demanding the party stick to deeply conservative principles, while some establishment Republicans are concerned about alienating Hispanics, women and other core constituencies.
Perry, the longtime Texas governor who stumbled as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, declared that conservative governors like him are leading the nation's economic recovery.
He also suggested that Washington politicians in both parties have seized too much power, and it's time to elect "the right kind of leaders."
At stake this year is the Senate majority, currently held by senators in Obama's Democratic Party. But for all, the November elections could serve as a springboard for the next presidential contest.
Huckabee reminded the packed conference of the importance of following God's guidance.
"If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us," Huckabee said.
And as Obama and European leaders try to address Russian military aggression in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, Republicans faulted the president's leadership around the globe.
"We have unloaded our own guns. ... No one trusts us, no one listens to us, no one respects us, no one fears us," Huckabee said.
The former governor said the only time Russian Vladimir Putin shivers is when he takes his shirt off, not when he is confronted by Washington. It was a reference to a 2009 photo-op Putin staged in Southern Siberia, where he posed shirtless on horseback in 2009.
"He's not the least bit worried about what we think of him," Huckabee said.
On Thursday, the initial slate of Republicans vying for the party's next presidential nomination called for the party to unite behind a clear agenda and draw contrasts with Democrats.
The contestants ranged from Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party champion, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a favorite of the Republican establishment.
"If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing," said Cruz. "When you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate."
The three-day conference runs through Saturday, when conference organizers will announce the results of their annual symbolic presidential straw poll.