WASHINGTON — Appearing before conservatives who hold huge sway in the GOP presidential nomination fight, a stream of would-be Republican candidates called President Barack Obama weak and suggested they alone possess the talents needed to beat him and lead a country in crisis.
In unrelenting attacks on Obama, the lineup of potential contenders took on the president's economic team, his advisers and even the first lady's vegetable garden. They did little to hide their disdain for the man they hope to replace.
"Two years ago, this new president faced an economic crisis and an increasingly uncertain world; an uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction from a weak president," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said concerns about the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran and Islamic extremists are overshadowed by worries about Obama's handling of those threats.
"The only thing more alarming than these threats is the president's weak response. We can't win a peace with apologies and reset buttons," said Thune, who is contemplating a presidential bid but has yet to lay the groundwork to start a full-fledged campaign.
The annual gathering marked the unofficial start of the GOP presidential nomination fight. Not a single Republican has announced his or her candidacy and there is no clear front-runner among the potential candidates to take on the Democratic incumbent.
But many of the speakers are all-but-declared contenders. When Romney couched his ambitions — "if I were to decide to run for president," he began one part of his speech — the crowd in the ballroom laughed.
They also rose to their feet when he talked about an out-of-work Obama as early as 2013.
"It's going to take a lot more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It's going to take a new president," Romney said to cheers.
Thune, too, looked ahead to the next election.
"If we're going to solve our entitlement problem in this country, we need to solve our White House problem by electing a conservative president in 2012," Thune said.
The start of the 2012 presidential campaign has been slower than the beginning of the last cycle, when candidates hired staff in the days after the 2006 midterm elections and shortly afterward opened campaign offices in the key early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
This time, there has been a more tepid start, in part because potential candidates are still contemplating the role of the tea party in the nominating process and, in part, because no one else is fully in the race.
Would-be contenders were using the three-day event to test messages, introduce themselves and gauge support. They also sought to prove their mettle among the strongest conservative activists who are looking for a candidate who can level a devastating attack on the incumbent president.
For all the talk of a weak Obama, the candidates overlooked their own vulnerabilities:
— Romney didn't mention his role in Massachusetts' health care overhaul that has many similarities to Obama's national effort.
— Thune did not mention his vote in support of the 2008 Wall Street bailout that has become anathema for conservatives and resulted in several Republicans losing to primary challengers in 2010.
Romney's speech even took a swipe at first lady Michelle Obama's White House garden in a dig at Obama's new effort at bipartisanship rolled out in the State of the Union.
"He sounded like he was going to dig up the first lady's organic garden to put in a Bob's Big Boy," Romney said, referencing the burger chain.
Thune also went after Obama's rhetoric.
"Someone needs to tell him you can't win the prosperity of tomorrow if you're mortgaging it to pay for the big government programs of today," Thune said.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was set to deliver an afternoon speech, introducing his story and record to the more than 11,000 conservatives in the capital for the gathering.
A day earlier, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and tea party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota spoke with the group, as did real estate mogul Donald Trump who got a rousing welcome.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is to speak Saturday.
Several potential candidates were absent: Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential GOP nominee, and Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, are favorites among conservatives who declined invitations, citing scheduling conflicts.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, hasn't yet left his job as Obama's ambassador to China, though he has given the White House his resignation, effective this spring. In the meantime, allies have established a campaign-in-waiting and on Friday announced they had hired two aides — both veterans of Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.