Conservatives polish their brand, rally base at annual gathering

Shown here are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left; Sen. Rand Paul, center; and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Shown here are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left; Sen. Rand Paul, center; and Sen. Marco Rubio.  (AP)

The Republican Party's most prominent voices, including potential presidential candidates, joined thousands of conservatives and Tea Party activists outside Washington to discuss the future of the party after it was dealt a presidential election loss in November. 

The kick-off of the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday was filled with high-profile figures, who used the stage to rally conservatives and chart the future direction of the movement. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., among the prominent speakers on the first day, called on the Republican Party to make a renewed effort to appeal to the middle class, whom he described as disenchanted with the divisive debate in Washington -- often pitting the well-off against those who rely on government assistance, casting aside the "vibrant" middle. 

"They wonder who's fighting for them," Rubio said. "That is both our challenge and our opportunity -- to be their voice." 

The speaker list is a who's who of possible 2016 Republican presidential contenders: Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, among them.

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Both Rubio and Paul spoke Thursday as the gathering began at Maryland's National Harbor, just south of Washington.

The conservative conference comes at a critical time for the GOP, as party leaders next week will release a comprehensive plan -- dubbed the Growth and Opportunity Project -- to help improve the Republican brand.

"The current disarray is actually pretty healthy," said former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who is scheduled to speak on the final day of the three-day conference.

Gingrich said the conference gives the party an opportunity to have "a serious dialogue about where we're going." "I think the future of the party is to focus on a better American future -- not to focus on being anti-Obama," he said.

The conference will also likely attract the Republican Party's most aggressive critics of President Obama, with Thursday's program offering a mix of opinions on the future of the party. 

Rubio spoke first Thursday, followed by Paul. The Republican senators spoke in the same order a month ago following Obama's State of the Union address. 

Rubio, a Republican who favors a more forgiving national immigration policy, delivered the GOP's formal response, while Paul followed with a response on behalf of the tea party movement.

This week's Republican confab comes as Democratic activists gather in Washington to discuss a nonprofit group designed to promote Obama's agenda. Separately, the president planned meetings with members of Congress from both parties to push his legislative priorities.

The nonprofit group, Organizing for Action, plans to raise millions of dollars to build support for Obama's agenda on issues like gun control, immigration and climate change. The group, led by former White House officials and top campaign staffers, is an attempt to harness the energy of the grass-roots machine that powered Obama's re-election campaign.

"For every lobbying group that puts a dollar on the air, tearing down the president's agenda, an OFA volunteer will mobilize across the country to counter that," said Jim Messina, who managed Obama's re-election campaign and now serves as the group's chairman.

Despite the hardball tactics on the left, Obama has projected an interest in striking deals with Republicans on immigration, gun legislation and cutting the nation's debt. The president was making three trips to Capitol Hill this week and planned to meet Thursday with Senate Republicans and House Democrats.

Conservatives are scheduled to address the same policy debates, although it's unclear whether they'll be calling for compromise with Democrats.

New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie, thought to be weighing a presidential bid, wasn't invited to the conference following conservative criticism after he enthusiastically praised Obama's hurricane response last fall. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and reality show star Donald Trump will appear, however.

Trump took to Twitter to express his excitement over the reaction to his announcement that he would participate: "@CPACnews had its largest ever ticket sales the day of my announcement. Really an honor. Can't wait to see everyone," he wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.