Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) addresses the annual Conservative Political… (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.
All four of the remaining presidential hopefuls are expected to speak here Friday. Thursday's schedule, in addition to leading conservatives and elected officials, includes a slew of former candidates like 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 slammed Obama for running a campaign that will "pit Americans against each other," with a State of the Union built around what he 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 'cause 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. And it's never worked anywhere it's been tried." The Florida senator, a potential vice presidential nominee, asked the crowd: "We're all going to come together and we know that, right?" The response was only polite applause.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, criticized the Obama administration for proposed rules on birth control, calling it 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.
Unseating Obama is "the glue that binds us together," Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union that sponsors CPAC, said in a television interview Thursday morning. "It's a quest more passionate than any I've seen in a long time," he told CNN.
"It surpasses Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton. This is a real mission. You will see it here live as you witness these three days." 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.