Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
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.
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.
Sharp competition among Republican leadership comes as President Barack Obama's role as the head of his party is unquestioned. Even looking to the next presidential election, there is a smaller pool of possible Democratic candidates largely waiting on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to shape her plans. Democrats concede she would be the strong favorite to win her party's nomination if she ran.
There is no such certainty on the Republican side, regardless of the outcome of the conservative straw poll.
Several high-profile Republicans are jockeying for elevated leadership roles.
Earlier in the week, Paul insisted on a new direction in Republican politics: "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered."
The straw poll victory offers little more than bragging rights for Paul, who is popular with the younger generation of libertarian-minded conservatives who packed the conference in suburban Washington. Nearly 3,000 people participated in the online survey and more than half were younger than 26.
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.
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.
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