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Too early? Republicans audition for 2016 election

By Steve Peoples

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, March 14, 2013.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio implored fellow Republicans to reconnect with middle-class voters.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul basked in the glow of his lengthy filibuster as he scanned a sea of "Stand With Rand" signs.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush held out the prospect of the nation's greatest century if the GOP were to evolve into the party of "inclusion and acceptance."

Only months after President Barack Obama's re-election, an annual gathering of conservatives served as an audition for Republicans looking to court conservative activists and raise their profile with an eye on greater political ambitions.

It may seem early, but the diehard activists who attended the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference are already picking favorites in what could be a crowded Republican presidential primary in 2016.

After telling The Associated Press that a presidential run is "an option," first-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker thrilled activists Saturday by declaring: "In America, we believe in the people and not in the government."

"It is precisely why, in America, we take a day off and celebrate the Fourth of July and not the 15th of April," he said.

The conservative summit was to release its straw poll results late Saturday afternoon, offering a symbolic boost to one of the high-profile Republicans on the ballot even though none has made his or her 2016 intentions known.

That doesn't mean they're not thinking about it. They've all injected their prescriptions for the future of the wayward GOP.

Rubio drew thunderous applause by proclaiming that the Republican Party doesn't need any new ideas.

"There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works," he said in a speech aimed squarely at middle-class voters.

Paul, a favorite of younger libertarians who packed the hall, called for a new direction in Republican politics: "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered."

Bush, perhaps the highest-profile establishment figure as the son and brother of presidents, pushed for a more tolerant party in a Friday night speech.

"The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American," he said, and called on conservatives to move beyond "divisive and extraneous issues."

Earlier Friday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged Republicans to "recalibrate the compass of conservatism."

The 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.

Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, offered a valedictory of sorts, thanking activists for supporting his campaign. In a nod to the next generation, he urged conservatives to learn lessons from "some of our greatest success stories," the nation's 30 Republican governors.

Romney specifically pointed to governors who have sought a larger national profile, including Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Walker.

Christie was not invited to the conference after rankling some conservatives by complimenting Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy. That move, some Republicans said, undermined Romney in the campaign's closing days.

The former Massachusetts governor also heaped praise on his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, pointing to Ryan's "clear and convincing voice."

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