With just one year, eight months, and 14 days left before the 2012 presidential election, the Republican field remains surprisingly devoid of announced contenders. But the race got its unofficial start this month in Washington, D.C., at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The event was the first major GOP forum of the election cycle, with nearly a dozen presidential hopefuls mingling with the party's base. Because the thousands of conservative activists are typically the staffers and volunteers who make up the backbones of Republican presidential campaigns, the event offered a first glimpse at the battle and applause lines the GOP is likely to feature against President Obama next year.
Judging by the CPAC speeches, the early Republican race features few differences in substance, leaving the potential contenders to showcase their personalities, style, and experience. "They all have the same vision, but they each have different track records, they have different histories, they have different capabilities," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a powerful conservative advocacy organization. "What's good is that the party is united in its vision and has a choice of messengers."
Indeed, CPAC began to sound like a broken record. Each of the could-be candidates tore down Obama's spending record, along with big government policies introduced in the past by Democrats and Republicans alike. They also took aim at Obama's healthcare law and what they see as his apologetic stance toward other world powers. They spoke of "American exceptionalism" and Ronald Reagan and paid homage to limited government and the principles of the Founding Fathers. And they touted the GOP's 2010 electoral sweep as, in the words of former House speaker and potential presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich, the "appetizer" to 2012's "entree." [Read more about the 2012 presidential race.]
While no one has officially declared for the race, and only former Godfather's Pizza magnate Herman Cain has even formed an official exploratory committee, the field could start taking shape quickly.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who made an unsuccessful 2008 run, is seen as a top contender. But many conservatives say that his Mormon religion could be an impediment. His support for Massachusetts's healthcare system, which to many looks like a state-level version of Obama's reviled law, may also make his primary run difficult. Other possible candidates include former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and sitting Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Two potential heavyweights were notably absent from CPAC, former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Even businessman Donald Trump made an appearance.
Keeping with tradition, the festivities wrapped up with a presidential straw poll. For the second straight year, Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul won, earning 30 percent of the vote. Romney came in second with 23 percent; no other candidate cleared single digits. Political insiders say that the CPAC poll used to be a good presidential bellwether, but it's not so much anymore, given the concentration of Paul fans.