Some of the Republican Party's most conservative activists will converge on the outskirts of Washington on Thursday for a three-day gathering that will serve as a chance to take the measure of potential contenders in a 2016 presidential contest with no clear front-runner.
The annual meeting known as CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference — occurs as Republicans are fractured policywise and yet poised to potentially control both houses of Congress if current trends continue through the November election.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the tea party darling who has bedeviled the Republican establishment by pushing his colleagues to unpopular stances on issues like the government shutdown, will lead off Thursday's program of back-to-back speakers at the gathering in National Harbor, Md.
Cruz will be followed by a number of potential rivals for the 2016 presidential nomination: Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will speak on Friday. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will close out the conference Saturday night, after organizers hold a straw poll to measure the support of attendees for the potential 2016 candidates.
But much of the attention at the gathering, which is organized by the American Conservative Union, will be focused on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's address on Thursday. Christie is looking to regain his stature within the party after his administration was rocked by revelations that his aides created traffic problems around the George Washington Bridge in what appeared to be an act of political retribution.
Christie has insisted that he did not know anything about the plan and fired those he said were involved, but his poll numbers have plummeted since the scandal broke, raising questions about his presidential potential and his effectiveness in leading the Republican Governors Assn.
The New Jersey governor has never been a favorite of the core conservatives who will gather at CPAC over the next three days. He was not even invited last year because he was not viewed as sufficiently conservative. There was, however, some evidence in the early days after the scandal that the most conservative party members were closing ranks around him, even as his numbers fell among moderates and independents who would be key to his presidential bid.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday night showed that 3 in 10 Republicans said they would not vote for Christie if he were to run for president. About 9% of Republicans said they would definitely vote for Christie, 50% said they would consider it and 11% had no opinion.
The poll illustrated the absence of a clear presidential favorite on the Republican side. The poll did not test Republicans against one another but did seek to chart which candidates had the most loyal supporters. At this point, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who has said he will not run again, had the firmest support with 34% of Republicans saying they would definitely support him — a figure that rose slightly to 37% among conservative Republicans.
Among all Republicans, the next strongest candidates were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Huckabee, both of whom were firmly supported by 15% of Republicans.