Nightly News   |  March 16, 2013

GOP seeks path forward at CPAC

Sen. Rand Paul captured the coveted straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday, as the Republican Party works to find a path forward. NBC’s Kristen Welker reports.

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>>> good evening. and you thought store christmas ads were appearing earlier and earlier each year. believe it or not, the first votes in the 2016 presidential race were cast today. unofficial, of course, but the jockeys among potential republican candidates is under way. today's straw vote , an early test of strength across a wide field took place at a conservative conference of republicans near washington where the gop has been licking its wounds of the 2012 election and wrestling with exactly how it will recast itself going forward. nbc's kristen welker is in washington tonight with late word of the results of today's straw poll , hello.

>> reporter: lester, good evening. here is the headline. senator rand paul of kentucky won with 25% of the vote, edging out senator marco rubio of florida who garnered 23%. then rick santorum in third place with 8%. followed by new jersey governor chris christie , who wasn't invited, he received 7%. paul ryan got 6%. all potential leaders in a party whose future remains unclear. senator rand paul of kentucky captured the coveted straw poll at the conservative political action conference today.

>> the last three republican nominees at some point have finished either first or second in the cpac straw poll so it does give you a sense of where the party is and where it might be going.

>> the gop of old has grown stale and moss-covered.

>> reporter: as the party works to find a path forward it was a candidate from the past who stepped back into the spotlight.

>> mr. president, we admit it. you won. accept it. now step away from the teleprompter and do your job.

>> reporter: sarah palin serving up red meat to the party faithful. even taking a swipe at new york mayor michael bloomberg 's decision to regulate soda.

>> our big gulp 's safe.

>> reporter: a rousing response.

>> she's on fire.

>> reporter: but the former vice presidential nominee has been out of political office since 2009 . bringing into question palin's sway with the party and the conservative movement . among those trying to fill the leadership void, tea party favorite senator ted cruz who headlined the event this weekend.

>> do we surrender? or do we stand up now?

>> reporter: it was a three-day conference marked by the discordant voices of potential 2016 contenders.

>> the face of the republican party needs to be the face of every american and we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance.

>> we don't need a new idea. there is an idea. the idea is called america. and it still works.

>> the new gop will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.

>> reporter: party insiders warn republicans need to find a clear direction and learn the lessons of last year's stinging presidential defeat.

>> it's up to us to make sure that we learn from our mistakes and my mistakes.

>> there was very little republican outreach, particularly to working-class voters. and to the hispanic community, which doomed the party at a national level.

>> reporter: now, the party will also have to wrestle with social issues like same-sex marriage. friday senator rob portman reversed course and said he supports same-sex marriage, after learning that his son is gay. according to the latest nbc news/" wall street journal " poll a majority of republicans are opposed to same-sex marriage, most democrats support it.