By John Whitesides and David Lawder
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie urged conservative activists on Thursday to talk about what they are for, not just what they are against, and said Republicans need to focus on winning elections in addition to promoting their ideology.
In his first major appearance before Republicans since he was engulfed in a home-state scandal over political retribution in January, Christie led a parade of potential 2016 presidential contenders who laid out their visions for activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
It was a trip into previously hostile territory for Christie. He is viewed warily by some of the most conservative members of the Republican Party, in part because he oversees a mostly Democratic state and praised Democratic President Barack Obama's work on disaster relief in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Christie was not invited to the CPAC meeting last year, in a move widely viewed as retribution for his friendly words about Obama just before the 2012 presidential election. But Christie was given a warm reception on Thursday as he praised the accomplishments of fellow Republican governors and emphasized his conservative stances on issues such as reducing government.
He said Republicans should fight back against what he described as media bias and explain themselves better.
"We don't get to govern if we don't win," Christie told activists packed into a hotel ballroom in suburban Washington.
"Let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again," Christie said, echoing the sentiments of moderates in the Republican establishment who say the party has thrown away opportunities to win some elections in recent years - particularly for congressional seats - because it nominated candidates who were too conservative for many voters.
"We've got to start talking about what we're for and not what we're against. The reason for that is very simple ... our ideas are better than (Democrats') ideas," Christie said.
A WARNING FROM CRUZ
Four other potential presidential candidates - Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan - also spoke to the conference.
They blasted Obama and his fellow Democrats for pushing a broad healthcare overhaul and other government solutions to problems, and said Republicans would win the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 race for the White House by holding true to their conservative values.
"If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing," Cruz said, adding Republicans managed to win elections in 2010 - and give rise to the conservative Tea Party movement - because they drew a line in the sand.
"We said we stand unequivocally against Obamacare, against bankrupting the country, and we won a historic tidal wave of an election," he said. "When you don't stand for principle, the Democrats celebrate."
CHRISTIE'S 'CULTURAL PROBLEM'
Ryan, Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate in 2012, said the feud in the Republican Party between Tea Party conservatives and the more pragmatic business wing was a result of "creative tension" and said Republicans should "give each other the benefit of the doubt."
The three-day conference brings together a range of conservatives, from lawyers in pin-stripe suits to Tea Party activists in cowboy hats, to listen to speakers and attend panel discussions with titles such as "The American Dream vs. the Obama Nightmare."
A who's who of conservative talk-radio hosts from across the country brought their shows to the conference, and a large exhibit hall featured displays for conservative organizations. Throughout the conference, the chatter among conservatives was about the elections this November that will determine control of Congress, and the 2016 presidential campaign, which could pit the Republican nominee against a formidable Democrat: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association and a former president of the American Conservative Union, a sponsor of the conference, predicted that Christie would enter 2016 as a serious contender for the Republican nomination but ultimately would not be nominated.
"He's got a serious cultural problem," Keene said, adding that the notion that a northeastern, moderate Republican such as Christie could "sit down with six farmers in Iowa or New Hampshire and have them say, 'He's our guy,' is pretty far-fetched."
Democrats said the annual conservative gathering demonstrated that much of the Republican Party is outside the nation's political mainstream.
"This year, CPAC isn't just a meeting of conservatives, it's an agenda-setting moment for Republicans heading into the midterms," a statement from Democratic campaign committees said on Thursday. "The traveling circus is back in town, and the gathering is more divisive than ever."
Four other Republicans who could be presidential contenders in 2016 - Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee - will address the conference on Friday.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Ken Wills)