Susan Walsh, Associated Press
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, March 6, 2014.
OXON HILL, Md. — The early auditions for the Republican Party's next presidential contest are in full swing at the nation's largest annual gathering of conservative activists, where some of the GOP's most prominent religious conservatives are facing off.
Friday marks the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings thousands of conservative activists to suburban Washington each year to put their stamp on the Republican Party.
The day's speaking program features 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 takes the stage later in the day, setting up a clash of ideas between the libertarian-minded activists who generally flock to the conservative conference and the religious wing of the GOP, which continues to wield influence over party affairs. An afternoon panel discussion is titled, "Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?"
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.
On Thursday, the initial slate of Republicans vying for the party's next presidential nomination called for the GOP 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, who cited as examples the unsuccessful presidential bids of Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. "When you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate."
The day offered an early tryout for a half-dozen Republican officials eager to win over the party's most passionate voters. At stake this year is the Senate majority, currently held by senators in President Barack Obama's Democratic Party. But for all, the November elections could serve as a springboard for the next presidential contest.
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. Fiscal crises, compromises and a war of words have separated the factions from the top down despite widespread agreement that Obama's signature health care law should be overturned.
More than two years before the election to succeed Obama, there's no clear front-runner for the Republican nomination. But Republicans interested in the job are filing across the stage at a hotel complex outside Washington — bashing the media, criticizing Obama and making a case for being the candidate who can win the White House.
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.
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Most of the speakers Thursday touched upon existing divisions within the party that threaten to derail its plans. They offered varied perspectives on foreign policy, social issues and political strategy, but each insisted that the Republican Party's future is bright.
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.
The three-day conference runs through Saturday, when conference organizers will announce the results of their annual symbolic presidential straw poll.