At CPAC, Obama's potential successors try to position themselves for the future

In their speeches at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference, Republican 2016 candidates unsurprisingly bashed President Obama over and over again, cast the Affordable Care Act as a failure and suggested the president’s foreign policy moves helped enable Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine.

But what was most striking is how the Republican candidates attempted to define themselves against one another, as they look towards what could be a very competitive GOP presidential primary starting next year. Here’s a closer look:

1. Sen. Ted Cruz — The Principled Conservative

The man who introduced Cruz noted that the Texas senator has been described as “the most hated man in Washington.” This was intended as a compliment. CPAC is full of the kind of ardent conservatives who appreciate Cruz’s crusade to stop “Obamacare,”which helped lead to the government shutdown last fall, even if some of Cruz’s fellow Republican senators thought it was unwise.

“You win elections by standing on principle,” Cruz told the crowd, which loudly cheered him as he recited a long litany of conservative ideas, including abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, instituting a flat tax, expanding the ability of parents to choose their kids’ schools, repealing both the financial regulatory and health care provisions Obama signed into law in 2010, and limiting the number of terms members of Congress can serve.

2. Rep. Paul Ryan — The Big Thinker

Ryan has long cultivated a reputation as the Republicans’ ideas man, the one eager to release detailed policy plans.

“A conservative, modern reform agenda is now taking shape. We are offering a vision. And we have plenty of ideas,” Ryan said.

3. Rand Paul — Defender of the Constitution

“If you have a cell phone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business,” Paul said in a speech in which he repeatedly cast President Obama as overstepping his power, particularly on the controversial NSA “metadata” phone program.

Paul’s speech was strongly anti-government and libertarian, much more so than that of the other candidates.

4. Marco Rubio — Mr. Foreign Policy

Last year, Rubio cast himself as the candidate who would bring the party together and move it forward, particularly on issues like immigration. That didn’t work. Rubio’s standing among conservatives has plunged over the last year as they rejected the pathway to citizenship proposal that Rubio worked on, a proposal that Obama also backed.

So Rubio, unlike the other leading Republicans, is now focused on foreign policy. He cast the Russia incursion into Crimea as a result flaws in President Obama’s national security approach.

“America must be involved in leading the world,” he said. He added, “If you think that Obamacare is hurting our economy, it is, but so is China controlling the South China Sea.”

5. Chris Christie — The Electable Conservative

“The way we have to define ourselves is to say what we’re for,” Christie said, emphasizing that Republicans can say they are “pro-life” but must broadly define that term beyond abortion to education and caring for people beyond their births.

His speech was full of lines about electability, as he told the crowd “we don’t get to govern if we don’t win” and “let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”