WASHINGTON - The nation's top Republican leaders are courting conservative activists gathered in suburban Washington this week, highlighting the tug of war over the soul of the GOP.
Thursday marked the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brought together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast.
Conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin headlined a crowded Thursday speaking program that also featured National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Conservatives have been slow to embrace the New Jersey governor, who wasn't invited to last year's conference but has the chance to make his first public address in Washington since a political retribution scandal erupted in January.
Christie was expected to call on activists and party leaders to not waste time with political arguments that don't produce results. He was also expected to criticize the media, a strategy that plays well among tea party supporters and could help improve his standing among skeptical conservatives.
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 President Barack 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.