TODAY   |  March 07, 2014

Christie, Cruz take center stage at CPAC

It’s day two of CPAC, an important three-day meeting for conservatives, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Ted Cruz. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports.

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>> natalie's following what could be the first test for republicans, starting to look ahead to 2016 .

>> it is day two of cpac. republicans like new jersey governor chris christie are already making their case. kelly o'donnell's at national harbor , maryland. good morning, kelly .

>> reporter: good morning, natalie. this is an influential group. the conservative political action conference . they come from all over the country. and they're looking for how to win and who can lead them in a republican party with no clear front runner . conservative big names appearing today, rand paul, rick santorum and sarah palin on tap tomorrow.

>> thank you.

>> reporter: this was a big change. new jersey governor chris christie was not even invited to this conservatives conference last year.

>> the fact is, we've got to start talking about what we're for and not what we're against.

>> reporter: but with scandals scarring christie's image, the embrace of the highly energized republicans is key to protecting his national standings. yet, christie did not shy away from telling conservatives to broaden their message on issues like abortion.

>> we need to be pro-life when they leave the womb, as well.

>> reporter: but senator ted cruz argues that a harder line on policy fights is the real answer.

>> when you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, democrats celebrate.

>> reporter: paul ryan down played struggles between the tea party and establishment.

>> i like to think of it as creative tension.

>> reporter: before a pro gun rights crowd, mitch mcconnell hits several conservative hot buttons in one sentence.

>> the media don't even notice. they're too busy trying to fix benghazi for hillary.

>> reporter: and it was donald trump who claims he has the better relationship with russia than president obama .

>> and they treated me so great. putin even sent me a present. and, you know, you look at what he's doing with president obama , he's like toying with him.

>> reporter: and ramping up the presidential speculation, the attendees here are voting in a straw poll , the results announced tomorrow. and the field is so wide open , more than two dozen names on the ballot.

>> kelly o'donnell in maryland for us. thanks so much.