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Big question at CPAC: Who's for hire?

By Jim Acosta and Evan Glass, CNN
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Inside CPAC
  • Conservative Political Action Conference takes place through Saturday
  • Donald Trump wows the conservative crowd
  • Rick Santorum says, "I'm in the process of testing the waters" for 2012 run

Washington (CNN) -- Just picture the Donald Trump for President bumper sticker: "Barack Obama, You're Fired."

The Conservative Political Action Conference now going on in Washington might as well be a new reality television smash hit: "American Presidential Idol."

Only this time, the man who has served as the leading judge on various versions of "The Apprentice" for 11 seasons on NBC finds himself playing the role of contestant.

Just before Trump's speech to the rowdy CPAC crowd Thursday, a woman yelled: "You're hired." The fact that "The Donald" is being talked about as a serious contender for the White House means the Republican field for 2012 is wide open.

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Not to be outdone by Trump and taking a not-so-subtle dig at former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Dakota Sen. John Thune told the CPAC crowd: "The closest I've come to being on a reality show is C-SPAN's live coverage of the Senate floor."

Nearly four years to the day after Barack Obama announced he was running for president, this year's CPAC kicked off without a major GOP contender in the race for 2012. Instead, there are a couple of nagging questions: Who's for hire? And what's taking them so long?

"It's a good question," former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum told CNN at the conference. "I'm in the process of testing the waters."

Sure, there are plenty of contenders willing to sound like candidates. In his speech to the CPAC crowd, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered up a campaign-ready one-liner to rival Trump's fiery remarks: "I knew Ronald Reagan. ... Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan," he said to cheers.

But there were few clues about his future. After his speech, Gingrich steamed through a scrum of reporters and refused to answer any questions. One of the C's in CPAC this year might as well stand for "coy."

Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Nevadan who lost a vicious race to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is one of the few conservatives at the conference willing to put the questions to rest. After a recent trip to Iowa raised 2012 speculation, Angle said she's not running.

Still, Angle refused to name a candidate she's ready to support. Asked about the prospects of Palin, who endorsed Angle last year, the Nevada Republican would only say: "I believe in the American dream. Anyone can grow up to be president."

Palin's uncertain future is often mentioned as a reason why other Republicans have yet to announce their intentions. The thinking is that it would be hard to raise money and gather media attention with Palin in the race. But not all Republicans are sold on that conventional wisdom.

"I don't think so," said former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, a respected party hand. "I think she is one of many good candidates," added Anuzis, who counts 28 potential contenders on the CPAC schedule.

One person Anuzis isn't sold on is the man who may go down as the biggest surprise of the conference. "There's a lot more I'd have to know about Donald Trump," he said.

The real estate mogul tried to answer some of those questions, describing himself as anti-abortion rights, anti-gun control and anti-Obamacare in his CPAC speech.

Trump, who says he'll make a decision by June, told the crowd there's a good reason why he's considering a run. "Frankly, I wish there was a candidate that I saw that would be fantastic, 'cause I love what I'm doing," he said.

When supporters of perennial candidate Ron Paul interrupted, shouting the Texas Republican's name, Trump fired back: "By the way, Ron Paul cannot get elected. I'm sorry to tell ya."

Then, he walked off the stage to "For the Love of Money," the theme song from his show, raising suspicions this is just another clever Trump marketing campaign.

But when he was asked by reporters why he came to CPAC, Trump sounded less like a master of the universe and more like the rest of the cautiously cagey contenders at CPAC: "I'm a Republican. Let's see what happens," he said.