Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Conservative activists began a three-day gathering in the nation's capital Thursday with a clear mission — defeating President Obama — if not a clear sense of how to get there.
Thousands have descended on a Washington hotel for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at a time when the race for the Republican presidential nomination has taken yet another unexpected turn.
Mitt Romney seemed to have secured his position as the front-runner with convincing victories in Florida and Nevada. But then Rick Santorum won all three nominating contests Tuesday, none of which awarded convention delegates, but the results of which signaled the unease the party's most conservative elements still feel toward the former Massachusetts governor.
Three of the four remaining GOP presidential candidates are scheduled to speak here Friday. (Ron Paul declined an invitation to speak, though his son Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky addressed the group Thursday.) Without another election until a pair of primaries Feb. 28, Romney's speech is seen as an important opportunity to reassure the party base that he's one of them.
"He needs to make it clear that he's not just running to be the manager of the economy, but he's running to chart a course for America in the 21st century that will make her stronger, better, prouder and a greater beacon of hope and liberty for the whole world," Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said in an interview.
Reed, who is neutral in the race, sparked a roar of approval in a spacious hotel ballroom here when he brought up Santorum's three-for-three performance Tuesday during a panel discussion of the 2012 race. He said Santorum's message that fused conservative positions on social issues with a fiscal and economic vision was the right one.
A presidential preference straw poll of attendees is being conducted throughout the event. The results will be announced Saturday night before a closing keynote address by Sarah Palin.
Thursday's schedule, in addition to leading conservatives and elected officials, included a slew of former candidates, among them Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Without a standard-bearer of their own to point to, most of the opening keynote speakers kept their focus on the Democratic incumbent. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential vice presidential nominee, slammed Obama for running a campaign that will "pit Americans against each other," with a State of the Union address built around what Rubio considered class warfare.
"The basic argument that he's making to our nation is that the reason why some of us are worse off than we used to be is because other people are doing too well. That the only way for some of us to do better is for other people to do worse," he said. "That's the kind of thought process that people come here to get away from."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, criticized the Obama administration for proposed rules on insurance coverage of birth control, calling the policy an "assault on religious liberty." "The Obama administration has crossed a dangerous line, and we will fight this attack on the fundamental right to religious freedom until the courts overturn it or until we have a president who will reverse it," he said.
Picking up where she left off in her campaign, Bachmann castigated Obama's foreign policy, something polls show is actually among his strongest assets in the 2012 race.
The death of Osama bin Laden and other developments overseas were only "tactical successes," which "don't begin to compare with the mess that [he] has made of the Middle East and the strategic foreign policy blunders he's committed," Bachmann said.
Perry made no mention of Romney, the current delegate leader in the GOP nomination fight. Nor did he express further support for the man he endorsed for president after ending his own bid, Newt Gingrich.
But the Texas governor did give voice to the conservative activists who have yet to coalesce around a single candidate, imploring like-minded Republicans not to "settle" in the presidential race.
"We do the American people no great service if we replace the current embodiment of big government with a lukewarm version of the same," Perry said.
He also offered his spin on the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring Clint Eastwood, which sparked a political debate about the auto bailout.
"If it's halftime in America," he said, "I'm fearful of what the final score's going to be if we let this president start the second half as the quarterback."