Washington (CNN) -- Roughly 11,000 GOP activists from across the country met in the nation's capital Thursday for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference -- a gathering of potentially critical importance for the prospective field of 2012 Republican presidential candidates.
The list of speakers for the three-day meeting is a virtual "Who's Who" of GOP presidential politics. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour were all slated to address the conference before it wraps up on Saturday.
Texas Representative Ron Paul, South Dakota Senator John Thune and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton were also scheduled to appear, along with celebrity real estate mogul Donald Trump and businessman Herman Cain.
Two new stars of the conservative movement -- South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul -- both spoke on Thursday. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also spoke.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former China Ambassador John Huntsman are among the potential presidential hopefuls who will not be appearing.
Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, kicked off the conference to thunderous cheers with a call for President Barack Obama's defeat next year.
"The all important must-have for 2012 is this," she declared. "Making Barack Obama a one-term president. ... This is the real world. This is when it counts."
Santorum took aim at Obama's handling of the crisis in Egypt, arguing that the administration's handling of the situation would make allies of the United States question the reliability of American backing.
"What does the president of the United States do? He sides with the protesters," Santorum said. "I am not suggesting that we shouldn't side with the protestors, but what message are we sending to countries around the world who are friends of ours (that) when things get tough we walk away?"
Santorum also slammed the Democrats' push for an extension of unemployment benefits, claiming it was slowing the pace of economic recovery.
"How many small businesses would be created if folks didn't get the 99th week" of unemployment?" he asked. "My grandfather didn't come to this country because we had 99 weeks of unemployment benefits."
Gingrich challenged Obama to model himself after President Bill Clinton and "move to the center."
Repealing the health care overhaul, eliminating the estate tax and securing the Mexican border might help earn Obama an invitation to be the keynote speaker at CPAC in 2012, Gingrich joked.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told the crowd the GOP had successfully shifted the terms of the national debate and ensured that the "failed policies of the Carter era would stay where they belong -- next to the bell bottoms and lava lamps."
Romney, Pawlenty and Daniels are among those speaking Friday.
The conference will conclude with a straw poll that has been trumpeted as a key early indicator of presidential primary support. Paul, a noted Libertarian and 2008 presidential candidate, emerged as last year's winner.
While the conference, first held in 1973, has traditionally been seen as a way to bring together economic, foreign policy and social conservatives, a rift has emerged this year over the decision to include a gay conservative group -- GOProud -- as a "participating organization."
Several prominent conservative organizations, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the Heritage Foundation, are boycotting the conference as a result. Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint are also skipping the gathering.
Daniels, known primarily as a fiscal hawk, has been harshly criticized by a number of social conservatives for calling for a "truce" on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage until the economy recovers. The Indiana governor has not retreated from that position, however.
Romney may also find himself in the spotlight as observers watch for a potential defense of what has been dubbed "Romneycare" -- a health care overhaul he supported as governor of Massachusetts that included a requirement for individuals to obtain insurance coverage. The individual mandate, also a key component of Obama's health care reform law, is despised by conservatives.
In addition to watching Daniels and Romney, observers will also be paying attention to:
-- "Let Freedom Ring" President Colin Hanna, who attends a weekly closed-door luncheon in Washington with other conservative heavyweights to hash out strategy. Hanna has stressed that conservative activists are not yet united behind a single candidate.
-- A possible strong straw poll showing by DeMint or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, which would stir further speculation about the presidential ambitions of the two men.
-- Whether the strong rhetoric of the conference will be toned down in the wake of the January shootings in Tucson, Arizona.
CNN's Alan Silverleib and Peter Hamby contributed to this report