Conservative Republicans are in Washington to kick off the party's 2012 nomination process even as the champagne fizz of last year's mid-term election success gives way to anxiety about finding a credible candidate to challenge President Barack Obama.

The scratchy mood at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, will stand in contrast to the celebrations of last November, when the Republican Party's takeover of the House of Representatives came in part thanks to the grassroots enthusiasm of its right flank, especially members of the Tea Party movement.

With up to 10,000 activists attending, the meeting will culminate with a straw poll on Sunday to pick a favourite from among 15 Republican hopefuls, nine of whom are scheduled to speak. The order of the day for each will be to highlight their conservative credentials, both financially and in social policy.

Polls are showing a slim majority of Americans believing Obama will be denied a second term. The CPAC confab should be brimming with anticipation. Yet less than a year before the Iowa caucuses, the field is fuzzy with no frontrunner and few fresh faces.

Many of the candidates, from Tea Partier Michele Bachmann to Mitt Romney, will be using the conference to try to drag themselves out of the pack. But key figures will be notable by their absence.

Among those who have chosen not to turn up is Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, who has once again found himself the subject of an attempt to draft him into the race.

Bush has said that he has no intention of running, and to many sending yet another Bush to the White House may sound like desperation. But the National Journal, which is behind the latest draft-Jeb effort, thinks not.

Also absent will be Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey who some see as a new Republican star. (He has gone so far as to mention suicide as the only means of getting across to people that he is not intending to run.)

And there will be no sign of Jon Huntsman, Obama's just-resigned Ambassador to China who is reportedly flirting with a run. Crucially, the 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin, won't be there either.

A hidden but hardly secret tension lies at the heart of the party's considerations. On the one hand, the new strength of the Tea Party might give wind to candidates such as Palin or Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota. But the establishment is terrified the party might pick someone who will bomb in the election.

For now, the frontrunners in opinion polls are not Tea Party figures, but rather familiar faces from the 2008 nomination contest such as Mike Huckabee and Romney, respectively the former Governors of Alabama and Massachusetts. Most polls show one of these two leading the nomination pack.

Clouding everything is Palin, who refuses to say whether she intends to compete or not. She is not in Washington this week, nor has she begun all the usual rituals of buttering up donors in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

And yet, she could fill a stadium tomorrow while other possible runners might worry about empty seats in a village hall.

She was blasted this week by Rick Santorum, the former hard-right US senator from Pennsylvania who some see as competing for the nomination. Palin is skipping CPAC, she told a radio interviewer because she had other "business opportunities" to attend to.

"I have a feeling that she has some demands on her time, and a lot of them have financial benefit attached to them," he carped.

At CPAC, Romney will have to explain why as Governor of Massachusetts he signed healthcare reform into law that shares many of the features built into the Obama overhaul passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress last year.

Other top-billing speakers at the conference will be Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, both of whom are likely to run.

The difficulty of separating right-wing darlings from viable candidates was underscored by Grover Norquist, a doyen of the conservative movement and a sponsor of the conference

"When you're the party that's out of power, more than usual you are looking [for] someone who can win," he told the New York Times.

"There are a bunch of people who are hard core, but don't pass the laugh test at a national level."

- Independent