Though overshadowed by events in Egypt, thousands of U.S. conservative activists have been meeting in Washington this week, and many are already looking forward to the 2012 presidential race. Several potential Republican presidential contenders addressed a conservative group in what amounts to informal candidate auditions for the 2012 election.
The event is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC for short.
It is an important gathering for conservative activists around the country, and an opportunity for those considering a White House bid in 2012 to win over supporters in the audience and beyond.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is considering another presidential bid in 2012 after coming up short against John McCain in 2008 for the party nomination. Like most of the speakers at the CPAC conference, he took direct aim at President Barack Obama.
“Today’s misery is real unemployment, home foreclosures and bankruptcies," said Romney. "This is the Obama Misery Index, and it’s at a record high. It’s going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work, it’s going to take a new president!”
One surprise addition to the Republican presidential field this year could be billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump. Trump told the conference he will make a decision on whether to run for president by June.
“And I will tell you the reason I am thinking about it is that the United States has become a whipping post for the rest of the world," said Trump. "The world is treating us without respect. They are not treating us properly.”
The CPAC convention is also an opportunity for lesser known Republicans considering a run for the White House to make an impression on the thousands of activists who attend.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is a favorite with the so-called Tea Party movement, a loosely-organized grass roots grouping of conservative and Libertarian activists who seek to shrink the size of the federal government.
Bachmann told the crowd that defeating President Obama should be the top priority for conservatives next year.
“And the all important, must-have for 2012 is this, making Barack Obama a one-term president," said Bachmann.
Bachmann could be enticed to run especially if former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, another Tea Party favorite, decides not to. Palin and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, another possible contender, did not attend the CPAC conference.
Some familiar Republicans spoke to the conference as well, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says he will decide on a presidential bid in the next few months. Gingrich focused his critique on foreign policy and national security issues.
“The Obama administration is wrong on terrorism, wrong on Iran, wrong on the Muslim Brotherhood, wrong on Hezbollah, and being wrong on that many national security items is an enormously dangerous thing," said Gingrich.
The CPAC conference has long been a place where economic and social conservatives come together in search of common ground. Both groups represent key constituencies within the Republican Party.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is emphasizing conservative views on social issues in his possible presidential bid, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, America belongs to God, and we are stewards of that great gift," said Santorum.
Although there is increasing attention to the prospective Republican presidential field for 2012, political analysts say the field lacks clarity at this early stage.
This is Washington-based analyst Rhodes Cook:
“It’s a little hard to gauge, I would say, for one reason," said Rhodes Cook. "It is a late-starting campaign unlike in 2008.”
Public opinion polls suggest that former Governor Mitt Romney is the closest thing to an early front-runner in the still-evolving Republican presidential field. But most experts, including Rhodes Cook, see the battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination as wide open.
“The one thing about this Republican race that sticks out now is that it is a muddle," said Cook. "I mean, there is no real heir apparent there. And in past election cycles the Republicans have been known for having an heir apparent, kind of ready to go.”
Many of the possible Republican presidential contenders like to invoke the memory of former President Ronald Reagan, who remains a hero to the U.S. conservative movement.
But analyst Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report says he does not see a towering figure yet among the field of possible Republican candidates for 2012.
“It is really unlikely that we are going to see a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, one of the strongest, most formidable Republican candidates in the last century," said Charles Cook.
Several Republicans are expected to announce their White House intentions within the next few months, and candidate debates will begin later this year.