The wide-open, potentially divisive nature of the 2016 Republican presidential race is on full display this week on a ballroom stage outside Washington.
Nine potential candidates wooed the party's base the past two days at the Conservative Political Action Conference. None is an obvious favorite in the party's early race for the nomination, a rare case for Republicans.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who drew the largest crowd of any of the potential candidates appearing at the convention of party activists in Oxon Hill, Md., said in his speech yesterday that "lovers of liberty" can't always walk in step with the Republican Party.
"It isn't good enough to pick the lesser of two evils," Paul also said. "We must elect men and women of principle and conviction and action who will lead us back to greatness."
Other possible contenders who spoke yesterday were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The convention heard Thursday from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee.
Freedom is under assault by the federal government and everyone must fight to protect the less powerful, Paul said. "You can be a minority by the color of your skin, or the shade of your ideology," he said.
Without naming Christie, Santorum offered a rebuttal to the New Jersey governor, who argued that Republicans need to figure out a way to win, if they want to govern again.
"They actually mean we have to lose," Santorum said. "We have to lose those currently unfashionable stances on cultural and limited-government issues that have been proven over time to give Americans the best chance for a healthy, happy life."
Santorum reminded the audience he won 11 states in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential primary bid. "That's more states than any second-place finisher since a guy who finished second back in 1976 named Reagan," he said.
Perry, in his address, also placed a heavy emphasis on limited government.
Perry, 64, received some of the strongest applause among potential candidates. As he pitched his record as governor, Perry said the national political debate is one between "big government, protectionist nanny state" and "the limited-government, unsubsidized freedom state."