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Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 1:15 AM

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Too early? Republicans audition for 2016 election

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio implored Republicans to reconnect with middle-class voters. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul basked in the glow of his lengthy filibuster, facing a sea of "Stand With Rand" signs. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush predicted the nation's greatest century if the GOP becomes the party of "inclusion and acceptance."

Associated Press

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OXON HILL, Md. —

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio implored Republicans to reconnect with middle-class voters. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul basked in the glow of his lengthy filibuster, facing a sea of "Stand With Rand" signs. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush predicted the nation's greatest century if the GOP becomes the party of "inclusion and acceptance."

Only months after President Barack Obama's re-election, an annual gathering of conservatives served as an audition for Republicans looking to court conservative activists and raise their profile with an eye on greater political ambitions. It may seem early, but the diehard activists who attended the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference are already picking favorites in what could be a crowded Republican presidential primary in 2016.

The conservative summit was to release its straw poll results on Saturday, offering a symbolic boost to one of the high-profile Republicans on the ballot - even though none has made his or her 2016 intentions known.

That doesn't mean they're not thinking about it. They've all injected their prescriptions for the future of the wayward GOP.

Rubio drew thunderous applause by declaring that the Republican Party doesn't need any new ideas.

"There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works," he said in a speech aimed squarely at middle-class voters.

Paul, a favorite of younger libertarians who packed the hall, bluntly called for a new direction in Republican politics: "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered."

Bush, perhaps the highest-profile establishment figure as the son and brother of presidents, pushed for a more tolerant party in a Friday night speech.

"The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American," he said, and called on conservatives to move beyond "divisive and extraneous issues."

Earlier in the day, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged Republicans to "recalibrate the compass of conservatism."

The stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference was emblazoned with the words "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives," a moniker that made clear the party's interest in showcasing a new wave of talent. The gathering evoked the ending of one period and the beginning of another.

Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 nominee, offered a valedictory of sorts, thanking activists for supporting his campaign. In a nod to the next generation, he urged conservatives to learn lessons from "some of our greatest success stories," the nation's 30 Republican governors.

Romney specifically pointed to governors who have sought a larger national profile, including Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Christie was not invited to the conference after rankling some conservatives by complimenting Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy - a move that some Republicans said undermined Romney in the campaign's closing days.

The former Massachusetts governor also heaped praise on his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, pointing to the congressman's "clear and convincing voice."

Ryan, whose stature has been elevated since the campaign, made no reference to the 2012 campaign in his speech Friday, instead focusing on congressional efforts to tame the deficit. His speech, warmly received by activists, pointed to his professed interest in policy matters rather than future national campaigns.

Other 2012 presidential contenders - former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among them - appeared at the conference to help maintain their place in the national conversation as the Republican Party looks for leadership.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who excited many conservatives before withdrawing from the 2012 presidential contest, openly questioned the conservative credentials of the GOP's last two presidential nominees.

Walker, who won conservative admiration for challenging his state's labor unions, was set to speak on Saturday, He told The Associated Press late last month that a 2016 presidential bid "would be an option," although it wasn't something he was "actively pursuing."

Walker's comments illustrate a dance the potential presidential candidates undertake as they contemplate their political futures.

Paul has said he's "seriously considering" running for the White House. But others have been more circumspect.

Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, has avoided such questions and instead continued his central role in one of Capitol Hill's most significant policy debates. And Jindal laughed off questions about his future. "Any Republican that's thinking about talking about running for president in 2016 needs to get his head examined," he said last month. "We've got a lot of work to do."

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