OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Former presidential candidates and a few new potential White House contenders known for their focus on social values are trying out their speeches, as early auditions for the next Republican presidential contest rolled on Friday at the nation's largest annual gathering of conservative activists.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry mocked Democratic governors for leading their states to higher taxes and fewer jobs on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings thousands of activists to suburban Washington each year to put their stamp on the Republican Party.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee reminded the packed conference of the importance of following God's guidance.
"If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us," Huckabee told the packed conference.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul take the stage later in the day, setting up a clash of ideas between Christian conservatives and libertarian-minded Republicans. 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.
Perry said Democratic governors lead states with higher taxes, more regulations and fewer jobs. He singled out New York and California as egregious examples.
About New York, he said, "They're implementing the tired old recipe of back-breaking taxes and regulations that are larger than a 30-ounce big gulp."
Perry also suggested that Washington politicians in both parties have seized too much power, and it's time to elect "the right kind of leaders."
The day before, 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."
Thursday 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.
Most of the speakers Thursday touched on 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.
"We have unloaded our own guns. ... No one trusts us, no one listens to us, no one respects us, no one fears us," Huckabee said.
The former governor said the only time Russian Vladimir Putin shivers is when he takes his shirt off, not when he is confronted by Washington. It was a reference to a 2009 photo-op Putin staged in Southern Siberia, where he posed shirtless on horseback in 2009.
"He's not the least bit worried about what we think of him," Huckabee said.
The three-day conference runs through Saturday, when conference organizers will announce the results of their annual symbolic presidential straw poll.