At CPAC, Republicans Jockey for 2012

It's the closest thing to a national audition for 2012.

Feb. 12, 2011— -- It's the closest thing to a national audition for 2012.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is the unofficial first blow in the Republican presidential nomination fight where conservatives from across the nation descend on Washington to denounce President Obama's agenda and name their choice to replace him.

At the podium were a parade of Republican gladiators from the past (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich), the present (Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul) and future.

"What we are watching is not "Brave New World"; what we're watching is "Groundhog Day"!" Mitt Romney told a roaring crowd Friday.

The same Republicans who handed Democrats a shellacking in 2010 are fired up to retake the White House in 2012, but so far no candidate has caught fire. In fact, no major Republican has officially announced he or she is in the race.

Today we'll get the results of the first major straw poll of the 2012 season.

There's the Tea Party candidate, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who told attendees, "This is about making Barack Obama a one-term president."

There's the establishment favorite, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"The republican party is historically a party that rewards the next guy in line. Mitt Romney is clearly the next guy in line. He should be regarded as the establishment candidate and I think, the prohibitive favorite going in," said John Avlon, Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast.

There are also plenty of long shots and a wild card: Donald Trump, who warned, "The United States is becoming the laughingstock of the world."

The Republican field is so wide open that The Donald is hinting he wants America to hire him.

"There is no clear leader of the Republican party," Avlon said. "This is still very much a party in warlord status."

Some warlords seemed unafraid to go negative early.

"I like Ron. Paul. He's a good guy," Trump told the crowd, eliciting boos. "Ron Paul cannot get elected, folks. I'm sorry."

Just as notable as who's attending the annual conference is who's missing: Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 straw poll, and the former Alaska governor/reality TV star Sarah Palin.

"I've never held a book signing," Sen. John Thune told a tittering crowd. "I've been to Iowa plenty of times, but it's usually on my way to South Dakota. And the closest I've come to being on a reality show is C-SPAN's live coverage of the Senate floor."

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