Washington (CNN)Conservative Republicans, bullish on their prospects in 2016, are gathered at their vast annual conference to road test the long list of potential candidates promising to win them back the White House.
Conservatives party like it's 2016
Virtually every potential Republican hopeful is making their case at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a massive gathering on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland. The three-day political jamboree is featuring high-profile appearances from Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, along with other candidates struggling to get into the top tier.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seeking to shore up his support among conservative grass-roots activists, was one of the first powerful political figures to appear, and immediately rejected the idea that his 2016 prospects are already waning.
"Is the election next week? I am not worried about what polls say 21 months before we elect the President of the United States," Christie said, dismissing polls that show him well behind in key battleground states in the fight for the Republican nomination.
Christie, who has been slowed by political troubles in New Jersey and Jeb Bush's quick consolidation of the establishment path to the Republican ticket, took a veiled shot at the former Florida governor.
"If the elites in Washington, who do backroom deals, get to decide who runs, then he is definitely going to be a frontrunner," Christie said, in a question and answer session.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is already beloved among conservative activists, paced the stage like a preacher, and joked that the vast auditorium was so lacking in Democrats that it was as though Benjamin Netanyahu had been invited to speak, in a jab at the Obama administration over its opposition to the Israeli leader's speech in Congress next week on a proposed Iran nuclear deal.
"America is in jeopardy and we are met today on a great battlefield," Cruz declared. "Washington wants Obamacare but the people want liberty. Washington wants amnesty, but the people want the rule of law."
With the end of the Obama era in sight, grass roots activists at CPAC are bullish.
"I think the way most of us are approaching this is, there is going to be a Republican president. It is just a question of who it is going to be," said Daniel Ruoss, chairman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans.
The gathering comes at a crucial moment for Republicans. Walker, the Wisconsin governor, is rocketing to the top of some polls but must show he can maintain the momentum after some recent stumbles.He was due to speak later on Thursday. Bush could demonstrate his level of commitment to conservatives wary of him in his speech on Friday and Rubio and others will vie for an opportunity to break into the top tier.
And the whole show will play out as conservatives in Congress press GOP leaders to stand firm and allow the Department of Homeland Security to run out of money on Friday unless President Barack Obama's immigration orders are repealed.
CPAC is a riotous yearly festival of unfiltered right wing ideology and liberal bashing, featuring rock star conservative radio hosts and provocateurs, all paying homage to the memory of Ronald Reagan, the movement's hero.
It was the place where the typically staid Mitch McConnell waved a musket over his head, Sarah Palin assailed the "nanny state" by guzzling on a Super Big Gulp soda and Dick Cheney told libertarian hecklers to "sit down and shut up" after they branded him a war criminal.
But this year's party atmosphere will hide a serious mission -- finding a president and schooling young activists in the techniques of micro-targeting and grass roots activism that helped Obama win twice.
Key conservative leaders believe that after a turbulent period of internal division, the movement is well positioned.
"Conservatives that I talk to around the country, they are ready to win," said Matt Schlapp, chairman of CPAC host, the American Conservative Union.
Watching Obama appoint hundreds of federal judges, two Supreme Court justices and dictate a foreign policy Republicans see as feckless has "sobered up conservatives," he said.
But conversations with grass roots conservatives and talk radio monologues often come back, sooner or later, to a latent fear -- that the GOP establishment, prioritizing electability over political purity, will foist a centrist candidate upon conservatives that they cannot embrace.
Many conservatives had trouble backing John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 and are desperate to avoid a repeat.
"There are certainly a lot of reasons to be optimistic as we look towards 2016," said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group. But Holler warned many that Tea Party momentum must not be squandered by another establishment nominee.
That's where Bush comes in.
The former Florida governor has already said that he is willing to lose "the primary to win the general" election, prompting some conservatives to suspect he is mulling a centrist 2016 campaign to woo moderate voters. He's already alienated some grass roots activists because of his support for Common Core education standards and immigration reform.
Polls also show Bush has work to do with the primary electorate.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Bush 15 points down to Walker among likely caucus goers in Iowa, a state where social and evangelical conservatives play a key role.
Bush also has a family problem with conservatives. The movement never warmed to his father, George H.W. Bush, while his brother, George W. Bush, lost their support with his record on spending.
While Jeb Bush has lined up big donor backing, laid out a hawkish foreign policy and effectively pushed Romney from launching another race, he has yet to make a true play for conservatives.
There's no better place to do that than CPAC.
"I am going to be very curious to see how Jeb Bush performs," said Ned Ryun, founder of American Majority, a new conservative grass roots organization. "He has the potential to win some people over, but I do think there are going to be some skeptics in the crowd."
Walker is a mirror image of Bush at CPAC. He already has the instinctive trust of conservatives after winning two gubernatorial elections in a Democratic leaning state and beating a recall.
But he must show he is up to the scrutiny of being a top tier candidate and show his involvement in recent disputes over whether Obama is a Christian or loves his country does not mean he is prone to stumble into political sideshows.
Walker said his speech will show he is both a new voice and a tested leader.
"People in American want a fresh face, they want big, bold ideas from outside Washington and they want someone who has got a proven track record," he told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News on Tuesday.
Other candidates hope to spring a surprise, including Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Carly Fiorina. Perhaps CPAC will be the place where Chris Christie gets his wobbling pre-campaign back on track, or where former Texas Gov. Perry turns it around after his disastrous 2012 primary run.
"I do think is somebody going to step up to the plate and insert themselves in the conversation, which has almost become a Walker-Bush conversation," said Ryun.
The immediate impact of those efforts could register as soon as Saturday afternoon in the annual CPAC Straw Poll. Though it's more of a popularity contest than a true reflection of presidential viability, it does offer a quick snapshot of the sentiment of the conservative movement.
Rand Paul is tipped to make it a hat trick of straw poll wins by flexing his organizational skills. But the last Republican to win the straw poll and reach the White House was George W. Bush in 2000 -- so it's hardly a reliable predictor of the next president.
CPAC also offers a chance for more marginal potential candidates to take a run in the spotlight. Former business executive Carly Fiorina, who wants to bring gender diversity to the Republican race, took the chance to slam Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton over reports that her family's foundation had infringed rules on foreign donations established when she was secretary of state.
"She tweets about equal pay for women but won't answer basic questions about her own offices' pay standards—and neither will our President. Hillary likes hashtags. But she doesn't know what leadership means," Fiorina told activists.