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Possible GOP presidential hopefuls test waters in D.C.

WASHINGTON - Republicans who may want President Barack Obama's job flocked here 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 a crowd yesterday, celebrating recent GOP victories in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, and the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, respectively.

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

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, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana 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. Minnesota 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.

No Republican has announced a bid, but several are considering it or are laying the groundwork. GOP hopefuls are emboldened by Obama's weakened poll numbers and see an opportunity to capitalize on anger rippling through the electorate over his policies.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise appearance at the conservatives' conference and said, "I think Barack Obama is a one-term president." But he made clear he won't be the one to try to upend Obama, even though he was greeted with chants of "Run, Dick, Run."

Rep. Ron Paul won the most support for the 2012 presidential nomination in the unofficial straw poll at the conference. A libertarian from Texas who has railed against spending and the Federal Reserve, Paul won yesterday's contest with 31 percent. He has sought the presidential nomination in the past.

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

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