NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--The potential choice facing voters in the next Republican presidential race was on full display Thursday at the kickoff of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan offered conservative activists their vision for the way forward.
In a polished speech, Cruz, the headline-grabbing Texas senator, offered his familiar call for conservatives to hold true to their principles at a time when liberty was "under assault." Republicans who've strayed from that course have failed to win for a reason, he said.
"You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing," Cruz said. "All of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney. Those are good men. They are decent men. But when you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate."
He outlined a 10-point plan that he said conservatives can rally around, with items like defending the Constitution, boosting energy production, passing a balanced budget, and repealing "every single word of Obamacare." And in a direct appeal, he said the key to inspiring young voters was to "tell the truth," as Ronald Reagan and Ron Paul had.
"We need to turn this country around," he said. "We did it in 1980 with a grass roots movement that became the Reagan revolution. And let me tell you, the same thing is happening [now]."
Ryan, speaking shortly after Cruz, directly took on Democrats' new push for policies to address income inequality, calling it a sign the party is "out of ideas." The GOP's budget guru and 2012 vice presidential nominee pointed to specific proposals from a cast of Republicans in Congress – a list that did not include Cruz's name – as examples of how the party can apply conservative principles to the issues of the day.
In a subtle contrast to Cruz, Ryan said there was a difference "between being pragmatic and being unprincipled." And he later said that in Washington it was hard to tell who "came here to start a career" versus those who came "to take on a cause."
He highlighted his work on conservative budget blueprints as the House Budget Committee chairman, noting that at first only a few were willing to sign on to them but that after the tea party wave of 2010, they passed the House multiple times.
"Let the other party be the party of personalities. We want to be the parties of ideas," he said.
Ryan acknowledged divisions within the Republican ranks today, but said he saw it only as "creative tension" and a healthy debate.
"It's messy. It's noisy. It's a little uncomfortable," he said. "But the center of gravity is shifting."
Ryan and Cruz are the first of roughly a dozen potential 2016 GOP candidates to address the annual CPAC, the largest annual gathering of conservative activists.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) will address the audience later Thursday. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are slated to speak Friday.