New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chided some of his fellow Republicans -- and particularly those in Washington -- by using the stage of an annual conservative conference to blast "dysfunction in Congress" and urge the party to "start talking about what we're for and not what we're against."
The governor, controversial in his own party as well as among Democrats, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday after being shunned from last year's event.
The governor has styled himself as a common-sense conservative who's willing to broker with Democrats, but also take on powerful political interests like the unions. But as Tea Party Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz push for a more confrontational approach in Washington, Christie urged Republicans to re-think the game plan.
"We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for," Christie said. "... The way we have to define ourselves is to say what we're for."
The governor also lauded the efforts of Republicans at the state level, saying they're "getting things done" while politicians all across Washington are "standing on the sidelines and spit-balling."
It was a subtle but unmistakable distinction between Republicans like himself and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and high-profile Senate Republicans like Cruz -- all considered possible 2016 Republican presidential candidates.
Cruz was invited to kick off the conference in suburban Washington and delivered a typically fiery address.
"Our country is at a crisis point," the Texas Republican said.
Cruz addressed head on the current divide in the Republican Party between moderates looking anew for common ground with Democrats and party hard-liners like himself more than happy to keep waging battle against ObamaCare and other policies they see as representative of a bloated government.
"We need to repeal every single word of ObamaCare," Cruz bellowed from the podium.
Cruz, to the delight of the crowd, borrowed Obama's famous campaign trail phrases from 2008.
Recalling the unsuccessful fight last fall to repeal the health care law, Cruz mocked the outcry from Democrats and the media.
"They said 'this is hopeless, don't you understand, just move on, just accept it, you can't do anything to stop this.' -- Yes we can," he said.
His prescription for victory in the coming races? "I'm going to suggest a radical agenda to you -- hope and change." He claimed hope is diminishing around the world and in the American job market, and said Americans can still "change" a "corrupt and broken system."
Cruz was unsparing in his criticism of the party's performance in the 2006, 2008 and 2012 elections.
"You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing," he said. "We put our head down, we stood for nothing and we got walloped."
Cruz argued that when the party stood against ObamaCare in 2010, they won a "historic tidal wave of an election."
Cruz' speech was aimed not only at rallying the base but positioning himself as an unflinching foe of the administration -- particularly after last year's bruising fight against the health care law which led to a partial government shutdown. Republicans, led in part by Cruz, did not win any major changes to the law out of that fight.
Along with Cruz, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin headlined a crowded Thursday speaking program that also features National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and Christie. Conservatives have been slow to embrace the New Jersey governor, who wasn't invited to last year's conference but on Thursday made his first public address in Washington since a political retribution scandal erupted in January.
In Ryan's address, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee said he remains optimistic despite the party's presidential loss. And he disputed the notion that the GOP is divided.
"I don't see this great divide in our party," he said. Ryan called it a "vibrant debate," while claiming conservatives are "energized" while the left is "exhausted."
The event comes one year after Republican officials released a comprehensive plan to broaden the GOP's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season. But the party is far from united as it looks to the future. The conference is expected to showcase intraparty divisions on foreign policy, political strategy and social issues.
The debate could weigh heavily on the November midterm elections, which will decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill for the final two years of President Obama's presidency.
With control of the Senate within the GOP's reach, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas says there are early signs of a pragmatic shift among conservative activists who typically favor ideological purity at all costs.
"Most people are realizing that it's cool to be selecting the most conservative in the race, but there's an additional caveat that needs to be added, and that's who can win in the general election," he said.
Cardenas said the conference will also address Obama's positions on income inequality and the political unrest in Ukraine. He said he's particularly looking forward to intraparty debates in panel discussions with titles such as "Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.