OXON HILL, Md. — Just two months into President Barack Obama’s second term, Republican leaders are lining up to diagnose the GOP’s ills while courting party activists and looking toward the presidential primary in 2016.
Thousands of activists who packed into suburban Washington’s national conservative summit on Saturday gave Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul a narrow victory over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in their straw poll. Paul had 25 percent of the vote and Rubio 23 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was third with 8 percent.
The freshman senators topped a pool of nearly two dozen governors and elected officials who paraded through over three days. There were passionate calls for party unity, as the party’s old guard and a new generation of leaders clashed over the future of the party.
First-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who placed sixth in the straw poll, on Saturday encouraged Republicans to be aggressive but warned them to focus on middle-class concerns: "We need to be relevant."
The straw poll victory offers little more than bragging rights for Paul, who is popular with the younger generation of libertarian-minded conservatives who packed the conference. Paul’s father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, won the poll in 2010 and 2011, while presidential nominee Mitt Romney took the honor last year.
Walker thrilled activists Saturday by declaring: "In America, we believe in the people and not in the government."
"It is precisely why ... we take a day off and celebrate the Fourth of July and not the 15th of April," he said.
The event also featured Romney, who delivered his first speech since his Election Day loss four months ago. Romney heaped praise on his 2012 running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, who finished fifth in the poll.