Republicans Audition for 2016 at the Conservative Political Action Conference

For potential candidates, this year's gathering was a momentous encounter with a passionate segment of the GOP base.

Updated, 6:24 p.m.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—From the moment Rand Paul took the stage at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, the senator from Kentucky had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

"Imagine a time when liberty is again spread from coast to coast," Paul began. "Imagine a time when our great country is again governed by the Constitution. Imagine a time when the White House is once again occupied by a friend of liberty."

The annual conservative gathering and carnival tends to have a different cast depending on where it comes in the presidential cycle, and for that purpose, this year's edition is potentially momentous. By next year, presidential contenders will be declared or nearly so and openly jockeying for favor; this year represents a softer tryout, a testing of messages, an open casting call. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and Paul were among the "potentials" who came to test the waters.

Though CPAC draws right-wingers of all stripes, from Oliver North to Santorum to a guy on stilts in a Ronald Reagan costume, it is increasingly dominated by libertarians, a combined result of their passionate engagement in movement politics and the discount rates the conference offers to college students. That makes it, for Paul, something of a hometown crowd. On Saturday, he won the conference's straw poll in a landslide (see below for full results). The enormous ballroom at the convention center in the Washington suburbs was crammed with an audience of thousands for his speech on Friday, which Paul devoted exclusively to civil-liberties issues.

"We will not trade our liberty for security—not now, not ever," he said, decrying the National Security Agency's "surveillance" of Americans' cell-phone use.

Paul's speech was vigorous and rousing, but his decision to focus on his signature issue was an interesting one. For the past year or so, Paul has been touring the country talking about expanding the appeal of the Republican Party (and, coincidentally, ending up in places like Iowa and New Hampshire). At the same time, he has worked to raise his own profile on a number of issues, from immigration to abortion to the budget, so as not to get pigeonholed as merely a civil libertarian. Given the current international crises in Ukraine and Venezuela, many of the CPAC speakers addressed foreign policy, an area where Paul has sought to separate himself from the pure anti-interventionist views of his father, former Representative Ron Paul. Rand Paul's speech seemed to signal—both to his own passionate supporters and to political watchers sizing up the field—that even as he broadens his portfolio, he remains, at his core, devoted to the libertarian creed.

If you think the Republican Party is confusing, imagine how the politicians considering seeking its presidential nomination must feel. Their CPAC addresses were a window into their various guesses for where the party's heart lies and where they think it ought to be. So what did they talk about, and how were they received? A brief rundown:

* Cruz drew an unfortunate time slot, opening the conference at 9 a.m. on Thursday when many audience members and reporters were still lined up outside. He urged the crowd not to be swayed by establishmentarians urging moderation—not a tough sell here—and got a cheer when he demanded Republicans "repeal every word of Obamacare." Considering the audience's natural sympathy with him and the rhetorical feats of which he's capable, Cruz's speech seemed rather boilerplate. Indeed, Cruz later made more interesting remarks at a counter-CPAC convention across the street (the product of a long-running feud between anti-Islamists and CPAC organizers), where he called for a foreign policy that splits the difference between Paulian isolationism and John McCain-style hawkishness.

* Ryan's strength has never been his scintillating public speaking. He focused his speech on defending the idea that it is conservative policies and principles that truly empower the poor: "People don't want a life of comfort," he said, "they want a life of dignity." He also made a can't-we-all-get-along plea to his fellow Republicans, saying of the party's "infighting, conflict, backbiting, discord," "Look, I'm Irish. That's my idea of a family reunion." If Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee, is to seek national office again in 2016, this speech seemed to confirm he'd do so with a pitch to the GOP establishment on his economic-policy bona fides.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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