There is no clear consensus for who should carry the conservative mantle among nearly a dozen Republican aspirants who will be on hand to outline early themes of their candidacies. A wide-open race presents challenges and opportunities for the roster of current or former governors and members of Congress who are working to win over or, at the very least, neutralize influential conservative activists. The event, which has been held every winter for nearly four decades, is seen as such a command performance this year that Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and John Thune are among those who accepted invitations. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have both declined, citing scheduling conflicts. In the wake of sweeping Republican victories in last year’s Congressional elections, where Tea Party supporters rewarded candidates who pledged to uphold fiscally conservative principles and punished those who failed their conservative purity tests, the early stage of the 2012 campaign is unfolding as something of a political free-for-all. The event offers a prominent platform for candidates to introduce — or reintroduce — themselves to influential conservatives.
But that does not necessarily mean that all candidates start on the same footing, conservative leaders say, or that the presidential race will reprise the volatility of the midterm elections.
“When you’re the party that’s out of power, more than usual, you are looking at someone who can win,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conference sponsor. “There are a bunch of people who are hard core, but don’t pass the laugh test at a national level.”
The potential Republican rivals, at this early stage, have been focusing most of their criticism on the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress. But the conservative forum offers an opportunity for the contenders to begin distinguishing themselves from one another, particularly on areas of conservative orthodoxy.
The attendees of the Conservative Political Action Committee, which often includes a large contingent of young activists, are not a perfect representation of Republican voters in the early tier of states that open the presidential nominating season a year from now. But the audience at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, along with those watching the speeches on C-Span, offers the highest-profile platform yet for prospective candidates to test their messages.
Nearly all of the potential Republican speakers have appeared at the conservative gathering in previous years, but with the next presidential campaign on the horizon, the meeting provides an opportunity to create a second impression or explain pieces of their biography that could be troubling for some staunch conservatives.
Mr. Romney, for example, has endured criticism over the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Gingrich has sought to explain his support for ethanol subsidies, which many fiscal conservatives are troubled by. And Mr. Thune has faced questions about his support for the bank bailout, known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
“It is a chance to brand yourself,” said David A. Keene, the president of the American Conservative Union, a conference sponsor. “This is a chance for you to lay out a vision for the future to people who don’t know you or may have heard only something about you. The day when we have a perfect candidate — from anyone’s standpoint — is a day we’re never going to see.”
The candidates will also be judged in a straw poll. The survey holds no official significance, but several contenders make a significant investment into trying to win the mock election, which is often filled with suspense and intrigue. (Mr. Romney won the contest in 2007, while Mr. Paul won last year. This year, Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, is also on the ballot, which organizers believe could complicate efforts for Mr. Paul because they are likely to split the libertarian vote.)
The prospective presidential field will be joined by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and several newly elected Republican members of Congress who helped the party win its House majority. The appearances could highlight the fissures among Republicans — presidential hopefuls have already started distancing themselves from Congressional leaders on issues like raising the debt ceiling — that are likely to play out when the 2012 campaign intensifies.
The Conservative Political Action Conference also is opening against a backdrop of controversy over whether a gay Republican group should have been allowed to help sponsor the event. The Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation are among the organizations boycotting the conference because GOProud, the gay group, is participating.
The disagreement highlights the tensions among various conservative factions and raises questions about the balance between the social and fiscal priorities of Republicans that has already become part of the debate in early-voting states like Iowa, where the state’s precinct caucuses are scheduled to open the nominating contest next Feb. 6.
The first in a series of candidate forums sponsored by the Family Leader, a social conservative advocacy group, started this week in Iowa. Mr. Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, fielded questions about his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Several prospective candidates have agreed in the coming months to participate in the sessions, which are sponsored by Bob Vander Plaats, a leading conservative in Iowa.
Mr. Vander Plaats said presidential contenders needed to address a spectrum of issues, including government spending and the deficit, same-sex marriage and abortion, if they hoped to find support among many conservative voters in Iowa.
“We’re looking for an authentic conservative that would be both social and fiscal,” Mr. Vander Plaats said. “It’s going to be a big part of the vetting process.”