Standing front and center at CPAC forum, in a wide-open 2012 field

One of the biggest annual conservative gatherings opens in Washington on Thursday amid lingering controversy over the participation of a gay-rights group and hopes of momentum for close to a dozen possible White House candidates.

A slew of potential GOP presidential hopefuls have speaking slots at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) leading off the conference this morning.

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The CPAC task for each rumored 2012 hopeful is different, but the stakes for some are distinctly higher than for others.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s remarks at Friday night’s Ronald Reagan Banquet are sure to receive close scrutiny from conservatives, many of whom are still smarting from his proposed “truce” on social issues. 

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s prime speaking spot on Friday offers him the opportunity to prove that he can rev up a conservative crowd despite his reputation as too vanilla of a candidate.

The pitch to CPAC attendees from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who speaks Friday, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who speaks Thursday, could be an opportunity for both to test out some new stump lines, as the two are all but certain to jump into the presidential race. 

Sen. John Thune’s (S.D.) Friday speech could drop some additional hints about which way he’s leaning ahead of 2012, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has an opportunity to make an early impression with conservative activists when he speaks Thursday.

One surefire way to make a splash at CPAC is to use the time before a packed ballroom of conservative activists and hordes of media to officially jump into the presidential contest — something that’s not out of the realm of possibility this weekend.

Several Republicans with plum speaking spots are still very much on the fence about 2012 and could always use the platform to make big news one way or the other.

It was at CPAC in 2008 that Romney announced he was dropping his bid for the Republican nomination.

Other 2012 hopefuls speaking at the conference are Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and talk radio host Herman Cain on Friday and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton on Saturday.

But Saturday will also feature the results of the CPAC straw poll, which will be closely watched, given last year’s controversial results. Paul won despite the fact he’s not considered a serious presidential contender. Romney came in second, and observers will be watching closely to see if the results of the 2011 poll give a better indication of who will be the front-runner for the 
Republican nomination.

Just as notable as the attendees are the absences, which include former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Neither Palin nor Huckabee has ever been particularly enamored with the annual gathering. Palin has turned down invites four years in a row, this year rejecting CPAC’s offer of the coveted closing speaking spot, citing a busy schedule. 

Freshman Tea Party Rep. Allen West (Fla.) will give the closing speech instead.

And Huckabee blasted last year’s event after a poor straw poll finish, saying CPAC has become “increasingly more libertarian and less Republican.”

The inclusion of 
GOProud, an organization representing gay, lesbian and transgender conservatives, has caused several prominent right-
leaning groups to boycott the conference. 

DeMint has joined them. Rubio, one of the gathering’s star speakers last year, cited scheduling conflicts for his absence.