WASHINGTON — Thousands of conservatives, roused by GOP election gains they engineered, descended on the nation's capital Thursday, eager to help a Republican challenger deny President Barack Obama a second term.
But just who?
The three-day Conservative Political Action Conference marked the unofficial start of the GOP presidential nomination fight. Not a single Republican has entered the race and each day seems to bring a new contender in a crowded field that lacks a front-runner to take on the Democratic incumbent.
The latest one isn't exactly new to the game: Donald Trump, the estate mogul and host of TV's "The Apprentice." He showed interest in the past in running, in both 1988 and 2000, and said this week he's seriously thinking about 2012. He followed up those remarks with a surprise, last-minute appearance at the conservatives' gathering.
Would-be contenders were using the event to test messages, introduce themselves and gauge support. [See editorial cartoons about the Republican Party.]
"This is about making Barack Obama a one-term president," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite who's flirting with a bid. Opening the conference as the keynote speaker, she said, "We're all about winning in 2012." She didn't say whether she planned to enter the race for real. [See a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
Neither did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He did give a glimpse of his likely platform, using his speech to criticize Obama's policies as a "war on American energy" and to promote his alternative. Gingrich proposed replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with an Environmental Solutions Agency that he said would reward innovation, could help create jobs and increase national security.
Hearty applause followed when Gingrich lambasted comparisons between the current president and the 40th president, a hero to conservatives: "Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan," he said.
Congressional Republicans and presidential wannabes took turns bashing Obama, cheering GOP victories in November and firing up the crowd for continued success in 2012.
"You stuck to your principles. You shouted from the rooftops and at the town halls," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "And we have embarked on our comeback."
To Gingrich, "2010 is the appetizer. 2012 is the entree."
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., elected in the November GOP wave, said "the tide is turning" and hopes "that with so many Americans waking up to what their government is doing, we can make some real headway. ... And we can fight against this growth of government."
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, another freshman, urged lockstep opposition to Obama. "In the end conservatives, must stand united," he said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who lost in 2006 but is popular among anti-abortion activists and might run for president, said Obama and th Democrats were too eager to criticize their own country.
"Some see America as less than perfect or downright imperfect. ... Well, I disagree with that," said Santorum. "We've seen over the last years and over the last couple of decades, a group of people trying to transform America."
On tap for Friday: Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ended his presidential campaign in 2008 at this meeting.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is to speak Saturday.
Several favorites among conservatives were absent: Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential GOP nominee, and Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, declined invitations, citing scheduling conflicts. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, hasn't yet left as Obama's ambassador to China, though he has signaled his intention to resign.