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Conservative conference rolls out presidential hopefuls

By the CNN Wire Staff
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Romney may have to defend or forsake his health care overhaul in Massachusetts
  • Former governors Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee aren't attending
  • The conference runs through Saturday

Washington (CNN) -- Potential Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Sen. John Thune, Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Ron Paul all get their chance Friday to address the annual Conservative Political Action Conference -- a gathering of more than 10,000 GOP activists from across the country.

The list of speakers for the three-day meeting is a virtual "Who's Who" of GOP presidential politics.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Pawlenty, Minnesota's former governor, are considered likely to vie for the 2012 Republican nomination. Paul is considering another run after his failed 2008 bid and Thune of South Dakota is a relative newcomer to the presidential discussion.

Romney may find himself in the spotlight as observers watch for a potential defense of what has been dubbed "Romneycare" -- a health care overhaul he supported as governor of Massachusetts.

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The package included a requirement for individuals to obtain insurance coverage. The provision known as the individual mandate -- also a key component of Obama's health care reform law -- is despised by conservatives.

On Thursday's opening day, the speakers ranged from die-hard conservatives like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has the backing of the Tea Party. Former Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise appearance.

Real estate mogul and reality show star Donald Trump also showed up, as well as newly-elected South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem.

Some well-known names are no-shows at the conference, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former China Ambassador John Huntsman.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, another Tea Party favorite, kicked off the conference to thunderous cheers Thursday with a call for President Barack Obama's defeat next year.

"The all important must-have for 2012 is this," she declared. "Making Barack Obama a one-term president. ... This is the real world. This is when it counts."

Santorum took aim at Obama's handling of the crisis in Egypt, arguing that the administration's position would make allies of the United States question the reliability of America's backing.

"What does the president of the United States do? He sides with the protesters," Santorum said. "I am not suggesting that we shouldn't side with the protesters, but what message are we sending to countries around the world who are friends of ours (that) when things get tough we walk away?"

Santorum also slammed the Democrats' push for an extension of unemployment benefits, claiming it was slowing the pace of economic recovery.

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"How many small businesses would be created if folks didn't get the 99th week" of unemployment?" he asked. "My grandfather didn't come to this country because we had 99 weeks of unemployment benefits."

Gingrich challenged Obama to model himself after President Bill Clinton and "move to the center."

Repealing the health care overhaul, eliminating the estate tax and securing the Mexican border might help earn Obama an invitation to be the keynote speaker at CPAC in 2012, Gingrich joked.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told the crowd the GOP had successfully shifted the terms of the national debate and ensured that the "failed policies of the Carter era would stay where they belong -- next to the bell bottoms and lava lamps."

The conference will conclude with a straw poll that has been trumpeted as a key early indicator of presidential primary support. Paul, a noted Libertarian and 2008 presidential candidate, emerged as last year's winner.

While the conference, first held in 1973, has traditionally been seen as a way to bring together economic, foreign policy and social conservatives, a rift has emerged this year over the decision to include a gay conservative group -- GOProud -- as a "participating organization."

Several prominent conservative organizations, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the Heritage Foundation, are boycotting the conference as a result. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint are also skipping the gathering.