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GOP presidential hopefuls vie for clout

OXON HILL, Maryland--Republicans vying for the party's presidential nomination in 2016 auditioned Thursday before some of the nation's most ardent conservative leaders, calling for the party to unite behind a clear agenda and draw contrasts with Democrats.

The contestants ranged from Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative tea party champion, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a favorite of the Republican establishment.

“If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing,” said Cruz, who referred as examples to the unsuccessful presidential bids of Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. “When you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference offered an early tryout of sorts for a half-dozen Republican officials eager to win over the party's most passionate voters. At stake this year is the Senate majority, currently held by senators in U.S. President Barack Obama's Democratic party. But for all, the November elections could serve as a springboard for the next presidential contest.

Republicans have much to mend before 2016, starting with a stark ideological divide between the party's establishment and the super-conservatives who rose to power in the tea party-fueled 2010 elections that delivered a Republican House majority. Fiscal crises, compromises and a war of words have separated the factions from the top down despite widespread agreement that Obama's signature health care law should be overturned.

More than two years out from the election to succeed Obama, there's no clear front-runner for the Republican nomination. But Republicans interested in the job are filing across the stage at a hotel complex outside Washington — bashing the media, criticizing Obama and making a case for being the candidate who can win the White House.

For Christie, the event was the first major step back into the national spotlight and a chance to revive his image from a political retribution scandal in which his aides ordered the closing of lanes near New Jersey's George Washington Bridge.

Before the conservative crowd, he ignored his administration's recent troubles and showed flashes of the fighting spirit that has defined his political career. Christie won a standing ovation after a 15-minute speech in which he declared: “We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”

He later called on party leaders and tea party leaders alike to “start talking about what we're for and not what we're against.”

The conservative conference comes less than a year after the Republican National Committee released a comprehensive plan to broaden the party's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season.

Most of the speakers touched on existing divisions within the party that threaten to derail its plans. They offered varied perspectives on foreign policy, social issues and political strategy, but each insisted that the Republican Party's future is bright.

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland on Thursday, March 6.

(AP)

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