OXON HILL, Md. - The auditions have begun.
Just two months into President Barack Obama's second term, Republican leaders are lining up to diagnose the GOP's ills while courting party activists - all with an eye on greater political ambitions. They have danced around questions about their White House aspirations, but the die-hard conservatives are already picking favorites in what could be a crowded Republican presidential primary in 2016.
Thousands of activists who packed into suburban Washington's Conservative Political Action Conference gave Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul a narrow victory over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in their unscientific presidential preference poll. Paul had 25 percent of the vote and Rubio 23 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was third with 8 percent.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday.
The freshman senators topped a pool of nearly two dozen governors and elected officials who paraded through the same ballroom stage over three days. There were passionate calls for party unity, as the party's old guard and a new generation of leaders clashed over the future of the wayward Republican Party.
First-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who placed sixth in the straw poll, on Saturday encouraged Republicans to be aggressive but warned them to focus on middle-class concerns: "We need to be relevant."
Later in the day, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, mixed anti-Obama rhetoric with calls for a more inclusive GOP: "We must leave no American behind," she said after likening Washington leadership to reality television.
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a 2012 presidential contender, charged that GOP leadership "is as mired in past and mired in stupidity as it was in 1976."
But the ballroom stage was emblazoned with the words "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives," making clear the party's interest in showcasing a new wave of talent. The gathering evoked the ending of one period and the beginning of another.