Republicans who may want President Barack Obama's job flocked to the town they love to hate this weekend and repeatedly ripped into the Democrat, an early tryout of sorts for the GOP nomination.
"Mr. President, America is the hope. And you can keep the change," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told a key GOP constitutency in Washington, D.C. It was a play off Obama's hope-and-change campaign slogan.
The possible contenders used two national platforms — a caucus of conservatives and a gathering of governors — to promote their credentials and test their strength in an incredibly fluid field a full two years before the GOP chooses its nominee.
Along with Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich courted conservatives with lengthy speeches at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee popped in, too.
Across town, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour held court at the National Governors Association meeting as chairman of the GOP governors, while Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana attended. Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty plugged away at both events.
No Republican has announced a bid. Several are considering it or are in various stages of laying the groundwork for a run. They are putting campaign teams in place, visiting early primary voting states and using political action committees to sow good will — and money — among the party's candidates.
GOP hopefuls are emboldened by Obama's weakened poll numbers just one year into office, and they see an opportunity to capitalize on anger rippling through the electorate over his policies.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney could have been reading some of their minds when he made a surprise appearance at the conservatives' conference and said, "I think Barack Obama is a one-term president."
But Cheney made clear he won't be the one to try to upend Obama, even though he was greeted with chants of "Run, Dick, Run." Said Cheney: "I am not going to do it."
Others wouldn't rule out a run.
"If you see me losing 40 pounds that means I'm either running or have cancer," quipped Barbour, a former lobbyist and GOP chairman who Republican insiders say would be a formidable candidate.
In his role as head of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour said he would focus this year on helping fellow Republicans in governor's races. "If after these elections are over there's anything to think about, I'll think about it then," he said.
Still, he added: "I think it is unlikely that I'll run for president but that does not qualify as ruling it out."
Perhaps seeking to broaden his own base if not just that of the GOP, Barbour also said: "Republicans have a huge obligation to reach out and include the `tea party' activists ... because they ought to be with us. And if they're not, it's our fault."
He made a brief stop at the conseratives' meeting late Friday.
None of the would-be candidates speaking before that crowd mentioned running for president. Nonetheless, there were signs of the next White House race everywhere.
Each speaker delivered what could only be described as early versions of a routine campaign address, testing messages before an important part of the GOP base in Republican primary contests. Potential campaign advisers massed in the ballroom corners.
Supporters encouraged attendees to vote their way during a 2012 straw poll, set to be released Saturday. The results mean little more than bragging rights for the winner.
As the conference began Thursday, several in the audience yelled "Romney-Brown 2012" after newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, made a surprise appearance to introduce Romney. The 2008 failed presidential candidate's previous campaign experience showed through as he delivered speech highly critical of Obama, as well as Washington.
Romney said Obama was a failure in his first year. "Sometimes I wonder whether Washington's liberal politicians understand the greatness of America," the former governor said.
After his address Friday morning, Pawlenty shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures along what appeared to be a makeshift "rope line" of the kind presidential candidates are accustomed to; aides were close by.
Pawlenty is far less known nationally than Romney, so Pawlenty's speech was intended to introduce his biography, outline his vision and take on Obama. He did all three.
The RGA's vice chairman, Pawlenty had a high profile role at the governor's gathering and was appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. Barbour was booked on "Fox News Sunday."
Among possible candidates missing from the weekend events: 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
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