Image: Ron Paul
Cliff Owen  /  AP
Texas Rep. Ron Paul walks on stage to address the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. Paul was the surprise winner of a presidential straw poll Saturday among attendees at the annual GOP conference.
By AP National Political Writer
updated 2/20/2010 7:29:40 PM ET 2010-02-21T00:29:40

Republicans who may want President Barack Obama's job flocked to the town they love to hate this weekend and repeatedly ripped into the Democrat, an early tryout of sorts for the GOP nomination.

"Barack Obama has created at least three jobs that I know of: Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie and Scott Brown," former House speaker Newt Gingrich told a fawning crowd Saturday, celebrating recent GOP victories in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, and the Senate in Massachusetts, respectively.

He predicted Republicans would take back control of Congress this fall and added: "We'll elect a new president in 2012."

In appearance after appearance, possible GOP contenders used two national platforms — a caucus of conservatives and a gathering of governors — to promote their credentials and test their strength in an incredibly fluid field a full two years before the GOP chooses its nominee.

Along with Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania courted conservatives with lengthy speeches at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour held court at the National Governors Association meeting as chairman of the GOP governors, while Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana attended. Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty plugged away at both events.

Among possible candidates missing: 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presence was limited to a video shown to a small group of conservatives.

'One-term president'
No Republican has announced a bid. Several are considering it or are in various stages of laying the groundwork. They are putting campaign teams in place, visiting early primary voting states and using political action committees to sow good will — and money — among the party's candidates.

GOP hopefuls are emboldened by Obama's weakened poll numbers just one year into office, and they see an opportunity to capitalize on anger rippling through the electorate over his policies.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney could have been reading some of their minds when he made a surprise appearance at the conservatives' conference and said, "I think Barack Obama is a one-term president."

But Cheney made clear he won't be the one to try to upend Obama, even though he was greeted with chants of "Run, Dick, Run." Said Cheney: "I am not going to do it."

Others wouldn't rule out a run.

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"If you see me losing 40 pounds that means I'm either running or have cancer," quipped Barbour, a former lobbyist and GOP chairman who Republican insiders say would be a formidable candidate. He said he would focus this year on helping fellow Republicans in governor's races. "If after these elections are over there's anything to think about, I'll think about it then," he said.

Still, he added: "I think it is unlikely that I'll run for president but that does not qualify as ruling it out."

He made a brief stop at the conservatives' meeting late Friday.

Paul comes out on top
None of the would-be candidates speaking before that crowd mentioned running for president. Nonetheless, there were signs of the next White House race everywhere.

Each speaker delivered what could only be described as early versions of a routine campaign address, testing messages before an important part of the GOP base in Republican primary contests. Potential campaign advisers gathered in the ballroom corners.

Supporters encouraged attendees to vote their way during a 2012 straw poll; Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian who has railed against spending and the Federal Reserve, won the most support with 31 percent of the vote, followed by Romney, Palin and Pawlenty. The results mean little more than bragging rights for the winner.

As the conference began Thursday, several in the audience yelled "Romney-Brown 2012" after newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, made a surprise appearance to introduce Romney. The 2008 failed presidential candidate's previous campaign experience showed through as he delivered speech highly critical of Obama, as well as Washington.

Romney said Obama was a failure in his first year. "Sometimes I wonder whether Washington's liberal politicians understand the greatness of America," the former governor said.

After his address Friday morning, Pawlenty shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures along what appeared to be a makeshift "rope line" of the kind presidential candidates are accustomed to; aides were close by.

Pawlenty is far less known nationally than Romney, so Pawlenty's speech was intended to introduce his biography, outline his vision and take on Obama. He did all three.

The RGA's vice chairman, Pawlenty had a high-profile role at the governor's gathering and was appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. Barbour was booked on "Fox News Sunday."

On Saturday, Santorum — the Pennsylvania senator looking for a political comeback — played off Obama's hope-and-change campaign slogan, saying: "Mr. President, America is the hope. And you can keep the change."

The last to speak, Gingrich made a grand entrance into the standing-room only ballroom from a side door. He shook supporters hands as he made his way to the stage while "Eye of the Tiger" played loudly and the audience chanted "Newt."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Energized conservatives eye gains

  1. Closed captioning of: Energized conservatives eye gains

    >> know tonight.

    >>> in washington thousands of conservatives wrapping up a three-day meeting meant to energize supporters ahead of the mid-term elections. the conservative political action conference is also considered an important stop for aspiring republican presidential candidates . our report tonight from nbc's mike vicera.

    >> reporter: for conservatives what a difference a year makes.

    >> it's take back washington time. we've got the fever.

    >> reporter: let for dead many many, conservatives sense a weakened white house .

    >> the president obama has lost his mojo.

    >> reporter: while experts give republicans a chance to take back congress later this year. the former vice president is setting the bar even higher.

    >> i think barack obama is a one-term president.

    >> reporter: playing out over the past three daze in washington , a parade of presidential as pie rants lined up to take turns bashing mr. obama and democrats on spending.

    >> i think we should take a nine iron and smash the window out of big government in the country.

    >> reporter: on the economy.

    >> when it comes to pinning blame, pin the tail on the donkeys.

    >> and on the size of government.

    >> whether it comes to more bailouts the answer?

    >> no.

    >> when the conservatives have their conventions and they yell at me and say how terrible i am --

    >> reporter: as he was under attack in washington , the president was out west campaigning for vulnerable democrats and defending his record. mr. obama vowed to move ahead with his agenda.

    >> it is vital for our economy to change how health care works in this country.

    >> reporter: late today conservatives wrapped up their meeting with a presidential straw poll to pick the favorite candidate for 2012 . the winner was ron paul . nbc news, washington .

    >>> now we go overseas to

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