OXON HILL, Md. - Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 auditioned Thursday before some of the nation's most ardent conservative leaders, calling for the party to unite behind a clear agenda and draw contrasts with Democrats.
The contestants ranged from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party champion, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a favorite of the GOP establishment.
"If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing," said Cruz, who referred as examples to 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 annual Conservative Political Action Conference offered an early tryout of sorts for a half-dozen Republican officials eager to win over the GOP's most passionate voters. At stake this year is the Senate majority, currently held by senators in President Barack Obama's party. But for all, the midterm 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 out from the election to succeed Obama, there's no clear front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. But Republicans interested in the job are filing across the CPAC stage at a hotel complex just down the Potomac River from Washington -- bashing the media, criticizing Obama and making a case for being the candidate who can win the White House.
"Most people are realizing that it's cool to be selecting the most conservative in the race, but there's an additional caveat that needs to be added, and that's who can win in the general election," said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas.
For Christie, the event was the first major step back into the national spotlight and a chance to revive his image from a political retribution scandal in which his aides ordered the closing of lanes near New Jersey's George Washington Bridge. Federal authorities also are investigating allegations that two members of Christie's Cabinet threatened to withhold storm recovery funds from heavily flooded Hoboken if the city's mayor didn't approve a favored redevelopment project.
Before the conservative crowd, the Republican governor ignored his administration's recent troubles and showed flashes of the fighting spirit that has defined his political career. Christie won a standing ovation after a 15-minute speech in which he declared: "We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for."
He later called on party leaders and tea party leaders alike to "start talking about what we're for and not what we're against."
The conservative conference comes less than a year after the Republican National Committee released a comprehensive plan to broaden the GOP's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season.
Most of the speakers touched upon existing divisions within the GOP that threaten to derail their party's plans. They offered varied perspectives on foreign policy, social issues and political strategy, but each insisted that the Republican Party's future is bright.
The GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, downplayed intraparty divisions as "creative tension" and urged conservative activists to "give each other the benefit of the doubt" in the debate over the party's future.
"We, your representatives, we have to earn this benefit of the doubt," Ryan said. "We have to offer a vision. We have to explain where we want to take the country and how we're going to get there."
And as Obama and European leaders try to address Russian military aggression in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Republicans faulted the president's leadership around the globe.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pointing to global hot spots such as North Korea, Iran and Ukraine, said Obama thought he could shape global events "through the sheer force of his personality" and by giving speeches around the world.
"We cannot ignore that the flawed foreign policy of the last few years has brought us to this stage," Rubio said, adding that the U.S. was the one nation that could "stand up to the spread of totalitarianism ... The United Nations cannot do this."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal charged that the Democratic president is waging an "assault on the American dream" by redefining success as dependence upon government. He faulted Obama for not doing enough to help improve the nation's educational system and highlighted GOP efforts to give parents new choices.
The three-day conference runs through Saturday, when conference organizers will announce the results of their annual symbolic presidential straw poll. Several high-profile Republicans have yet to take the stage.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who won last year's straw poll, was addressing activists on Friday, along with former presidential candidates such as ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Meanwhile, Republican divisions were also on display on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., knocked prospective GOP presidential candidates -- Paul and Cruz among them -- who supported a bill to strip military commanders of the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes.
"You want to be commander in chief? You told me a lot today about who you are as commander in chief," Graham said of his GOP colleagues. "You were willing to fire every commander in the military for reasons I don't quite understand. So we will have a good conversation as to whether or not you understand how the military actually works."