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GOP presidential hopefuls meet in D.C.

WASHINGTON — Republicans who may want President Obama's job flocked to the town they love to hate this weekend and repeatedly ripped into the Democrat, an early tryout of sorts for the GOP nomination.

"Barack Obama has created at least three jobs that I know of: Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie and Scott Brown," former House speaker Newt Gingrich told the crowd Saturday, celebrating recent GOP victories in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, and the Senate in Massachusetts, respectively.

He predicted that Republicans would take back control of Congress this fall and added: "We'll elect a new president in 2012."

In appearance after appearance, possible GOP contenders used two national platforms — a caucus of conservatives and a gathering of governors — to promote their credentials and test their strength in an incredibly fluid field a full two years before the GOP chooses its nominee.

Along with Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania courted conservatives with lengthy speeches at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour held court at the National Governors Association meeting as chairman of the GOP governors, while Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana attended. Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty plugged away at both events.

Among possible candidates missing: 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presence was limited to a video shown to a small group of conservatives.

No Republican has announced a bid. Several are considering it or are in various stages of laying the groundwork. They are putting campaign teams in place, visiting early primary voting states and using political action committees to sow good will — and money — among the party's candidates.

Rep. Ron Paul won the most support for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination in an unofficial straw poll of conservative activists attending the conference.

A libertarian from Texas who has railed against spending and the Federal Reserve, Paul won the Saturday contest with 31 percent backing. He has sought the presidential nomination in the past and attracted a following among a segment of voters frustrated with Washington.

Fewer than a quarter of the 10,000 attendees participated in the balloting, an unscientific sampling that only offers bragging rights.

GOP hopefuls are emboldened by Obama's weakened poll numbers just one year into office, and they see an opportunity to capitalize on anger rippling through the electorate over his policies.

None of the would-be candidates speaking before that crowd mentioned running for president. Nonetheless, there were signs of the next White House race everywhere.

Each speaker delivered what could only be described as early versions of a routine campaign address, testing messages before an important part of the GOP base in Republican primary contests. Potential campaign advisers gathered in the ballroom corners.

On Saturday, Santorum — the Pennsylvania senator looking for a political comeback — played off Obama's hope-and-change campaign slogan, saying: "Mr. President, America is the hope. And you can keep the change."

The last to speak, Gingrich made a grand entrance into the standing-room only ballroom from a side door. He shook supporters hands as he made his way to the stage while "Eye of the Tiger" played loudly and the audience chanted "Newt."

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