WASHINGTON — Here's how wide open the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination is as the games begin: When Donald Trump showed up Thursday as a last-minute speaker at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a standing ovation.
Many of the 11,000 registered attendees said they'd seriously consider him as a candidate. They seemed willing to consider just about anybody. The CPAC straw poll, whose results will be announced Saturday at the conference's end, comprises 15 names.
Trump, the publicity-hound New York billionaire and TV host, has flirted before with a presidential run, but never done it. His casinos don't sit well with social conservatives. And his declaration to the CPAC audience that libertarian darling Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has "zero chance" of becoming president left many questioning whether he's serious about a run.
Still, many in the crowd said they were keeping open minds, because they see no candidate yet among the sprawling field of possible contenders who can clearly defeat President Barack Obama. And that's what they want most.
"We're waiting to see who sifts out," said Angel Fleming, 30, of Massachusetts.
Many possible candidates are to speak at the conference. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all spoke Thursday. Each drew some die-hard fans.
Bachmann called Obama's health-care expansion the "crown jewel of socialism." Gingrich called for replacing the Environmental Protection Agency. Santorum criticized Obama for too quickly abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, even though Obama's taken pains to stop short of calling plainly for his ouster.
Conservative delegates' priorities? Improve the economy. Reduce the debt. Repeal Obama's health care law. Cut environmental regulations that hinder business. Each came up again and again.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is to speak Friday. Two other big names, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, aren't attending. Some conservatives chose not to attend in protest of the presence of a gay-rights booth.
Keith Mauck, 36, a website publisher from Virginia, said he was concerned that the big GOP names in the mix were "kind of 'Been there, done that,' " and the lesser-known names might not be able to win or weren't up to the job.
"I don't see anybody in the presidential field yet that gets me excited," Mauck said.
Shane Hayes, 28, of Massachusetts, when he was asked what will narrow the field, said: "I think it's going to be more about baggage than anything else." He fears "everyone's just going to be coming out with the knives out."
Palin still has many fans, but several said Thursday that they were increasingly doubtful that she'd run. They're concerned that she's too polarizing or too much of a punching bag for the news media.
"I love Sarah Palin," said Mary Maloney, 52, a lawyer from New York. "I'd vote for her in a heartbeat." However, she added this reservation: "It's a little too high-exposure. She's more like a movie star, not a politician."
The first debate among Republican presidential candidates is set for May 2 at the Reagan library in California, less than 12 weeks away. No candidates have signed up yet, but expect a crowded stage.
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