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Anyone's Game: No Clear GOP Frontrunner Emerges for 2016

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Two days of speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference confirmed this fact about the still-early 2016 presidential race: the Republican field is as wide open as it’s ever been.

The audience heard from a two-term governor from the Northeast (Chris Christie of New Jersey), longtime Southern governors (Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana), a trio of first-term senators (Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida), the 2012 vice presidential nominee (Paul Ryan of Wisconsin), and a handful of former White House hopefuls (Perry, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee).

It’s a varied cast with no obvious standout.

Image: Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Held In D.C.
Dressed in American revolutionary clothing, William Temple (C) of Brunswick, Georgia cheers at the opening of the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 7, 2014.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

That sentiment was echoed by attendees of the three-day event, many of whom split their affections between a handful of GOP luminaries. “I really like Ted Cruz. And I loved Paul Ryan when he gave his first speech as a candidate for vice president. But I was very impressed with Gov. Christie, very impressed,” said Diane Doll of Cincinnati after Christie’s speech on Thursday.

The lack of a clear frontrunner is also reflected in recent public polling. A January Washington Post/ABC poll found a crowded and competitive early 2016 GOP field – with Ryan at 20 percent, Jeb Bush at 18 percent, Christie at 13 percent, Cruz at 12 percent, Paul at 11 percent and Rubio at 10 percent.

By contrast, the same poll showed Hillary Clinton getting support from a whopping 73 percent of Democrats in a hypothetical Democratic field also featuring Vice President Joe Biden (at 12 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (at 8 percent).

While it’s not clear that Clinton will run in 2016, that poll suggests the party largely will coalesce around her the moment she declares her candidacy.

Big applause for Paul, Perry, Cruz and Christie

But the same can’t be said of the GOP field, because the Republican Party remains divided over national security, immigration and the vision for the party’s future. None of those rifts were settled at CPAC.

Still, some of the high-profile speakers got a better reception than others.

Perry, who finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses in 2012, wowed the crowd on Friday with a rousing speech. “I am here to say we do not need to change recent history; we just need to change the presidency,” he said. “It’s not too late for America to lead in the world, but it starts by America leading at home.”

Cruz on Thursday drew cheers for delivering lines this: “We need to repeal every single word of Obamacare!”

Christie, under siege for twin scandals he’s facing at home, won over the crowd Thursday by criticizing President Barack Obama for not leading to reach a budgetary compromise with Republicans. “If that's your attitude, Mr. President, then what the hell are we paying you for?” He spoke to a mostly-full, although not packed room - and received a short standing ovation after his remarks.

Yet perhaps the best-received speech was from Rand Paul, whose father Ron Paul -- a former presidential candidate -- routinely performed well at CPAC events and in CPAC straw polls.

“I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business," Sen. Paul said of the National Security Agency’s metadata surveillance program. “We are free, and no man ... will take our freedom from us."

CPAC’s no-shows

And then there were two potential GOP presidential candidates who didn’t appear at CPAC: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Walker, whose name was invoked by several speakers on Thursday and Friday, is running for re-election in Wisconsin, a state Obama carried in 2008 and 2012.

And Bush is weighing a 2016 run, but also has acknowledged that being the brother of a former president and a son of another could work against him.

“I get the point. It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody,” he said, per Politico.

NBC’s Michael O’Brien and Katie Wall contributed to this article.

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