2012 hopefuls court conservatives at conference

WASHINGTON — Here's how wide open the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination is as the games begin: When Donald Trump showed up Thursday as a last-minute speaker at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a standing ovation.

Many of the 11,000 registered attendees said they would seriously consider him as a candidate. They seemed willing to consider just about anybody. The CPAC straw poll, whose results will be announced Saturday at the conference's end, comprises 15 names.

Trump, the New York billionaire and TV host, has flirted before with a presidential run, but never done it. His casinos don't sit well with social conservatives. And his declaration to the CPAC audience that libertarian darling Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has "zero chance" of becoming president left many questioning whether he's serious about a run.

Still, many in the crowd said they were keeping open minds, because they see no candidate yet among the sprawling field of possible contenders who can clearly defeat President Obama. And that's what they want most.

"We're waiting to see who sifts out," said Angel Fleming, 30, of Massachusetts.

Many possible candidates are to speak at the conference. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all spoke Thursday. Each drew some die-hard fans.

Bachmann called Obama's health care expansion the "crown jewel of socialism." Gingrich called for replacing the Environmental Protection Agency. Santorum criticized Obama for too quickly abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Conservative delegates' priorities? Improve the economy. Reduce the debt. Repeal Obama's health care law. Cut environmental regulations that hinder business. Each came up repeatedly.