OXON HILL, Md. -- Just two months into President Barack Obama's second term, Republican leaders are lining up to diagnose the GOP's ills while courting party activists -- all with an eye on greater political ambitions. They have danced around questions about their White House aspirations, but the die-hard conservatives are already picking favorites in what could be a crowded Republican presidential primary in 2016.
Thousands of activists who packed into suburban Washington's Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend gave Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul a narrow victory over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in their unscientific presidential preference poll. Mr. Paul had 25 percent of the vote and Mr. Rubio 23 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was third with 8 percent.
The freshman senators topped a pool of nearly two dozen governors and elected officials who paraded through the same ballroom stage over three days. There were passionate calls for party unity, as the party's old guard and a new generation of leaders clashed over the future of the wayward Republican Party.
First-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who placed sixth in the straw poll, on Saturday encouraged Republicans to be aggressive but warned them to focus on middle-class concerns: "We need to be relevant."
Later in the day, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, mixed anti-Obama rhetoric with calls for a more inclusive GOP: "We must leave no American behind," she said after likening Washington leadership to reality television.
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a 2012 presidential contender, charged that GOP leadership "is as mired in past and mired in stupidity as it was in 1976."
But the ballroom stage was emblazoned with the words "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives," making clear the party's interest in showcasing a new wave of talent. The gathering evoked the ending of one period and the beginning of another.
Sharp competition among Republican leadership comes as President Barack Obama's role as the head of his party is unquestioned. Even looking to the next presidential election, there is a smaller pool of possible Democratic candidates largely waiting on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to shape her plans. Democrats concede she would be the strong favorite to win her party's nomination if she ran.
There is no such certainty on the Republican side, regardless of the outcome of the conservative straw poll.
The straw poll victory offers little more than bragging rights for Mr. Paul, who is popular with the younger generation of libertarian-minded conservatives who packed the conference in suburban Washington. Nearly 3,000 people participated in the online survey and more than half were younger than 26.
Two GOP governors sometimes mentioned as possible presidential candidates -- Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey -- were invited to the conference after rankling conservatives in recent months for, among other things, supporting efforts to expand Medicaid coverage as part of Mr. Obama's health care overhaul.
A completely new face to many was that of Ben Carson, the celebrated neurosurgeon. Famous for separating conjoined twins, the once apolitical doctor quickly earned the affections of conservatives when he criticized Mr. Obama's tax and health policies at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, as the president sat just feet away.
Dr. Carson told activists Saturday that he would soon retire from medicine and could have a future in politics.
"Let's say you magically put me in the White House," Dr. Carson said before being interrupted by cheers.
"Who knows what I'm going to do," he said.
But the conference wasn't just an audition for presidential hopefuls. On Saturday, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Richard Fisher told the conference that the government should break up the biggest U.S. banks rather than allow them to hold a "too-big- to-fail" advantage over smaller firms.
The 12 largest financial institutions hold almost 70 percent of the assets in the nation's banking system and profit from an unfair implicit guarantee that the government would bail them out, Mr. Fisher said. The biggest banks enjoy a "significant" subsidy, enabling them "to grow larger and riskier," he said.
"These institutions operate under a privileged status," Mr. Fisher said. "They represent not only a threat to financial stability, but to fair and open competition."
Bloomberg News and The New York Times contributed.