Washington (dpa) - Arch-conservative Republicans are already
jockeying for the next presidential race just months after the party
failed to oust President Barack Obama from the White House.
On Saturday, Senator Rand Paul, the darling of the Tea Party faction, won 25 percent of the straw vote at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington.
Senator Marco Rubio was not far behind with 23 per cent of the vote, according to media reports, followed by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (8 percent); and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (7 percent), who was ironically considered too liberal to even be invited to the gathering.
The rally, which drew about 3,000 grass roots activists from the most conservative wing of the party, provides a showcase for rising Republican stars.
Most surprising was the support for Christie, who in the weeks before the presidential election angered many Republicans by shaking Obama's hand and escorting him to view the destruction of hurricane Sandy in Christie's state of New Jersey.
The Republican party is deeply split between more centrist members like Senator John McCain, who was booed at the conference, and upstarts like his former vice presidential running mate from 2008, Sarah Palin.
McCain and others want the party to tone down its far-right ideology and offer moderate candidates who can also appeal to the constituency that helped return Obama to the White House: Hispanics and women.
But Palin condemned those efforts, calling for Tea Party supporters and other conservatives to stick to their strong ideological bent.
On Friday, Mitt Romney, who lost his bid for the White House to Obama, made his first major public appearance at the rally since the election. Since his loss in November, he has been noticeably absent from other Republican gatherings and the internal party debate.
"I am sorry that I will not be your president," he said. "But I will be your co-worker, and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you. In the end, we will win just as we have won before, and for the same reason: because our cause is right and it is just."
The CPAC gathering was largely upstaged over the past days by the revelation by Republican Senator Rob Portman that he supported gay marriage - a red flag for the CPAC faction of the party.
Portman had voted against gay marriage on religious grounds as a member of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. He said he changed his mind after learning that his 21-year-old son was gay.
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