WASHINGTON — Just how wide open is the Republican presidential field? Vast enough that Donald Trump may want you to hire him.
The billionaire real estate mogul and host of television's "The Apprentice" got a raucous reception Thursday when he dangled a potential candidacy before thousands of conservatives who descended on the nation's capital eager to help a GOP challenger deny President Barack Obama a second term.
"The United States is becoming the laughing stock of the world," Trump said, sounding every bit a candidate as he offered his rationale for a possible bid. In a speech sprinkled with quips and jabs, he said he would decide by June whether to run.
"The Donald" was among nearly a dozen potential presidential candidates, in various stages and sincerity of considering a 2012 run, auditioning before 11,000 conservatives at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference.
The annual gathering marked the unofficial start of the GOP presidential nomination fight. Not a single Republican has entered the race and each day seems to bring a new contender in a crowded field that lacks a front-runner to take on the Democratic incumbent.
Would-be contenders were using the event to test messages, introduce themselves and gauge support.
"This is about making Barack Obama a one-term president," said Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party favorite who's flirting with a bid. Opening the conference as the keynote speaker, she said, "We're all about winning in 2012." She didn't say whether she planned to enter the race for real.
Neither did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He did give a glimpse of his likely platform, using his speech to criticize Obama's policies as a "war on American energy" and propose replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with an Environmental Solutions Agency that he said would reward innovation, could help create jobs and increase national security.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who lost in 2006 but is popular among anti-abortion activists and might run for president, claimed that Democrats were too eager to criticize their own country. "Some see America as less than perfect or downright imperfect. ... Well, I disagree with that," Santorum said.
All three earned polite applause and standing ovations.
But it was Trump, who showed interest in 1988 and 2000 in running for president but never did, whose appearance brought down the house and created a circus-like atmosphere, even upstaging a surprise appearance by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
As Trump took the stage, a person in the standing-room-only crowd shouted "You're hired," a play on his reality show tagline of "you're fired."
He hit the right notes for the audience; he stated his anti-abortion position and his support for the Second Amendment's protections for gun owners. And he offered a series of blunt assessments.
Trump noted he made "billions" as a successful businessman, adding: "It's a little different than what you've been hearing." On Obama, Trump said: "Nobody knew who the hell he was; he's now our president."
"Ron Paul cannot get elected, folks. I'm sorry," he said to a mix of applause and boos about the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman who has a cult-like following. And, Trump said, countries America trades with are "screwing us."
The crowd ate it all up, the reception either illustrating a hunger among conservatives for another option in a crowded field with no front-runner or a case of being star struck by a sharp-tongued reality show celebrity in their midst.
Throughout the day, congressional Republicans and presidential wannabes took turns bashing Obama, cheering GOP victories in November and firing up the crowd for continued success in 2012.
"You stuck to your principles. You shouted from the rooftops and at the town halls," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "And we have embarked on our comeback."
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., elected in the November GOP wave, said "the tide is turning" and hopes "that with so many Americans waking up to what their government is doing, we can make some real headway. ... And we can fight against this growth of government."1 comment on this story
On tap for Friday: Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ended his presidential campaign in 2008 at this meeting.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is to speak Saturday.
Several favorites among conservatives were absent: Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential GOP nominee, and Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, declined invitations, citing scheduling conflicts. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, hasn't yet left as Obama's ambassador to China, though he has signaled his intention to resign.