OXON HILL, Md. (AP) -- Republican leaders implored conservatives to offer stark contrast to President Barack Obama's policies and stand firm on principles as a way to win back Senate control in the fall elections and prepare for the 2016 presidential campaign.
Thursday marked the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brought together prospective White House candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast. As the party faces a tug of war for the soul of the GOP, Republicans made the case that the party must unite and offer a different path in the midterm elections.
"You win elections by standing for principle and inspiring people that there is a better tomorrow," said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, among a group of potential 2016 presidential hopefuls appearing at the conference.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, downplayed divisions within the party as "creative tension" and urged conservative activists to "give each other the benefit of the doubt" in the debate over the party's future.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, facing conservatives who have been slow to embrace him, received applause throughout a speech that highlighted his opposition to abortion and stressed the importance of getting results. "We don't get to govern if we don't win," Christie said.
The New Jersey governor wasn't invited to last year's conference but had the chance to make his first public address in the Washington area since a political retribution scandal erupted in January. He made no reference to the scandal but criticized media coverage of Republicans, a strategy that plays well among tea party supporters and could help his standing among skeptical conservatives.
"We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for," he said.
Kyle Jones, a 19-year-old college sophomore at the University of Alabama, said Christie helped sway many people in the ballroom. "He's still the Christie we knew before the Bridgegate scandal," he said. Rudy Carlson, a retired business executive from Lookout Mountain, Tenn., admitted he was "a little mad" about what he called Christie's tepid support for Romney in 2012 but said the governor had improved his image among conservatives.
"Fundamentally, he's a strong leader," Carlson said. "He'd be a great president."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, trying to stare down a tea party primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin in Kentucky, arrived on stage holding a rifle aloft, then presented the gun to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a favorite of conservatives. If Republicans win back control of the Senate, McConnell will be in a position to lead the chamber - but first, he must win over wary conservatives and win re-election against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has the backing of party leaders.
McConnell said Obama had treated the U.S. Constitution "worse than a place mat at Denny's" and noted his fights to oppose the president's agenda. He said the wealthiest Americans have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer under Obama, pointing to a Republican-controlled Senate as a way to help restore economic prosperity.
The event comes one year after Republican officials released a comprehensive plan to broaden the GOP's appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season. But the party is far from united as it looks to the future. The conference is expected to showcase intraparty divisions on foreign policy, political strategy and social issues.
The debate could weigh heavily on the November midterm elections, which will decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill for the final two years of Obama's presidency.
With control of the Senate within the GOP's reach, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said there are early signs of a pragmatic shift among conservative activists who typically favor ideological purity at all costs.
"Most people are realizing that it's cool to be selecting the most conservative in the race, but there's an additional caveat that needs to be added, and that's who can win in the general election," he said.
Cardenas said the conference will also address Obama's positions on income inequality and the political unrest in Ukraine. He said he's particularly looking forward to intraparty debates in panel discussions with titles such as "Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?"
The three-day conference ends Saturday.