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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. So, you take a big ballroom at a resort hotel just outside D.C., add thousands of conservative activists, stir in hundreds political journalists - you have an irresistible attraction for any Republican who wants to run. What amounts to an out of town tryout for a Republican presidential candidate occurred at the CPAC convention? There were plenty of candidates to be found, as NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea tells us.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's the annual Conservative Political Action Conference - CPAC for short - where there's always talk of the next presidential election. This year, as many at 10 possible 2016 candidates were invited to speak over the three-day event starting with the first speaker on the first morning, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

(APPLAUSE)

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Now, I do have to start with a bit of bad news this morning: I'm sorry to tell you that by virtue of your being here today, tomorrow morning each and every one of you is going to be audited by the IRS.

GONYEA: Jokes about the Obama administration were plentiful. But Cruz, a hero to the GOP's Tea Party wing, also mocked establishment members of his own party for nominating presidential candidates considered the most electable.

CRUZ: And then of course all of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney.

GONYEA: Another senator who spoke that first day, Marco Rubio of Florida, invoked Ronald Reagan in attacking President Obama's foreign policy.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: The president loves to point to Ronald Reagan and say, well, Reagan talked to Russia, Reagan talked to the Soviet Union, why can't we talk to Iran? But there is a difference. Reagan dealt with the Soviet Union because they had nuclear weapons and he wanted peace. But he never accepted the Soviet Union.

GONYEA: Governors who appeared included Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry of Texas, who's considering another White House run, despite a very disappointing presidential bid in 2012.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: And I am here today to say we don't need to accept recent history. We just need to change the presidency.

GONYEA: There was another governor here, New Jersey's Chris Christie, still dealing with a scandal over lane closures and massive traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. Christie said Republicans need to talk about what they are for rather than what they are against.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Here's another thing we've got to stop doing. We have got to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.

GONYEA: Also taking the stage was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, another veteran of 2012, who said he can build on his last campaign. While Congressman Paul Ryan - Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012 - addressed all the talk of divisions within the GOP.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: It's Tea Party vs. establishment, libertarians vs. social conservatives. There's infighting, conflict, discord. Look, I'm Irish. That's my idea of a family reunion.

GONYEA: The latest polls don't allow any Republican a claim frontrunner status, but it is clear that Senator Rand Paul has emerged as a top tier candidate. Paul of Kentucky spoke yesterday and drew both the biggest crowd - standing room only - and loudest cheers with his message of libertarian values.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: Will we sit idly by and let our rights be trampled upon? Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of big brother's crushing embrace? Or will we stand like men and women of character and say we are free and no man, no matter how well intentioned, will take our freedom from us.

GONYEA: Yesterday, Senator Paul was leading in the straw poll among CPAC attendees, much as his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, did in the past. Still to be seen though is whether the son can outdo the father once the actual primaries begin. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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