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Republicans audition for 2016 election

At conference, activists look for new candidate

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Participants gave Paul a narrow victory in their presidential preference poll.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Participants gave Paul a narrow victory in their presidential preference poll.

OXON HILL, Md. — Only months after President Obama’s reelection, an annual gathering of conservatives served as an audition for Republicans looking to court conservative activists and raise their profile, all with an eye toward greater political ambitions.

It may seem early, but the activists who attended the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference are already picking favorites in what could be a crowded Republican presidential primary in 2016.

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After saying a presidential run is ‘‘an option,’’ first-term Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin thrilled activists Saturday by declaring: ‘‘In America, we believe in the people and not in the government.’’

‘‘It is precisely why, in America, we take a day off and celebrate the Fourth of July and not the 15th of April,’’ he said.

The party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, former Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, mixed anti-Obama rhetoric with calls for a more inclusive GOP during her speech Saturday. ‘‘We must leave no American behind,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s imperative to reach out and share that conservative message.’’

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky basked in the glow of his recent lengthy filibuster as he scanned a sea of ‘‘Stand With Rand’’ signs.

Participants in the conference later gave Paul a narrow victory in their presidential preference poll Saturday.

He won 25 percent of the vote in the unscientific straw poll, just ahead of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who had 23 percent. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was third with 8 percent.

Paul, a favorite of younger libertarians who packed the hall, called for a new direction in Republican politics: ‘‘The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered.’’

Earlier at the gathering, Rubio implored fellow Republicans to reconnect with middle-class voters. He drew thunderous applause by proclaiming that the Republican Party doesn’t need any new ideas. ‘‘There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works,’’ he said in a speech aimed at middle-class voters.

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, held out the prospect of the nation’s greatest century if the GOP were to evolve into the party of ‘‘inclusion and acceptance.’’

Bush, perhaps the highest-profile establishment figure as the son and brother of presidents, pushed for a more tolerant party in a Friday night speech. ‘‘The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American,’’ he said, and called on conservatives to move beyond ‘‘divisive and extraneous issues.’’

Earlier Friday, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana urged Republicans to ‘‘recalibrate the compass of conservatism.’’

The stage was emblazoned with the words ‘‘America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives,’’ making clear the party’s interest in showcasing a new wave of talent. The gathering evoked the ending of one period and the beginning of another.

Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, offered a valedictory of sorts, thanking activists for supporting his campaign.

In a nod to the next generation, he urged conservatives to learn lessons from ‘‘some of our greatest success stories,’’ the nation’s 30 Republican governors.

Romney specifically pointed to governors who have sought a larger national profile, including Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Walker.

Christie was not invited to the conference after rankling some conservatives by complimenting Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy. That move, some Republicans said, undermined Romney in the campaign’s closing days.

The former Massachusetts governor also heaped praise on his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, pointing to Ryan’s ‘‘clear and convincing voice.’’

Ryan made no reference to the 2012 campaign in his speech Friday, instead focusing on congressional efforts to tame the deficit. He pointed to his professed interest in policy matters rather than future national campaigns.

Other 2012 presidential contenders — including Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Texas Governor Rick Perry — appeared at the conference to help maintain their place in the national conversation as Republicans search for a new leader.

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