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CPAC Straw Poll 2014: An Early Audition For The GOP's 2016 Presidential Possibilities

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Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine reevaluating the effectiveness of Federal mandatory minimum sentences, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine reevaluating the effectiveness of Federal mandatory minimum sentences, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

By STEVE PEOPLES, The Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — The nation's largest annual gathering of conservative activists comes to a finish Saturday but not before a final group of Republican all-stars takes the stage.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headline the third and final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings thousands of activists, opinion leaders and Republican officials to suburban Washington. Other participants Saturday include Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and a host of up-and-coming conservatives from across the country.

Saturday also features the results of the conference's annual symbolic presidential preference straw poll. The gathering is an early audition of sorts for most of the GOP's prospective 2016 presidential field.

Some of the GOP's most prominent conservatives insisted Friday that Republicans should emphasize hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage in this year's midterm elections, exposing an ideological divide within a party trying to capture the Senate this year and then the White House in two years.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor, set the tone early in the second day of the conference.

"If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us," Huckabee said to cheers. "It's time for government to scale back, not for people of faith to scale back."

The day also featured Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who, like Huckabee, have run presidential campaigns fueled in part by support from religious voters.

But Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of the final speakers of the day, represents a new generation of libertarian-minded Republicans less likely to oppose gay marriage or embrace laws allowing the government to affect people's private lives.

"There's a great battle going on. It's for the heart and soul of America," Paul told a swelling crowd, focusing on civil liberties instead of social issues.

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