ST. CHARLES, Mo.—Republicans' divisions over the best tactics to use in Washington were apparent Saturday as more than a thousand conservatives gathered in the Midwest for a day-long pep rally with politicians and activists.

The regional Conservative Political Action Conference featured fiery rhetoric against taxes and the federal Affordable Care Act, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama. It also included calls for conservatives to unite instead of fight among themselves.

The event was headlined by a pair of former presidential candidates—Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But many of the U.S. senators and representatives who had been scheduled to speak canceled at the last moment. Convention organizers said the lawmakers stayed in Washington, where they face a midnight Monday deadline to pass a funding plan to avert a partial government shutdown.

The lone U.S. senator to show up at the event sponsored by the American Conservative Union was Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. He received a standing ovation for aiding Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in this past week's unsuccessful filibuster against funding for the federal health care law.

"We must assert our rights to live in a land that's free from an oppressive, distant national government," Lee said. But he later told the conservative crowd, "We need to remember there's more that unites us than divides us."

Others were far less conciliatory toward those who don't strictly adhere to conservative principals.

"Republican elected officials who vote for tax increases are rat heads in a Coke bottle," declared Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Louisiana state Sen. Elbert Guillory, who switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in May, referred to Obama as "the head termite" who is "destroying the fiscal integrity of this nation."

American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas opened the event by praising Cruz's filibuster and said conservatives are done "playing nice."

"Conservatives are angry and rightly so," Cardenas said. "We're witnessing the first generation of Americans who instead of asking what they can do for America are far too eager to meekly accept liberal blandishments of what America can do for them."

For Perry and Santorum, the conservative political conference marked their second appearance in the past month in Missouri, a traditional swing state that has increasingly leaned GOP in presidential elections. Santorum also spoke two weeks ago in Kansas City at a Republican leadership event.

Perry came to the St. Louis area last month to denounce Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of an income tax cut and recruit businesses to Texas. The governor, who isn't running for re-election in 2014, arrived at the CPAC convention a day early to watch the St. Louis Cardinals and hold a Missouri press conference touting his creation of a nonprofit group focused on spreading his message of lower taxes and less government regulation.

Perry, noting he lived in Missouri 1969, sidestepped questions Saturday about whether he was laying the groundwork for a potential 2016 presidential bid. He steadily criticized Obama but not fellow Republicans.

"Obamacare is a failure before it even gets out of the gate. So defund it," Perry told reporters. But he also said: "I don't think anybody thinks that shutting down the government is a good option."

Santorum said Republicans need to adopt new tactics—not new positions—if they are to defeat Democrats in national elections.

"We tell the American public that we are right, and we prove it to them by numbers, facts and figures," Santorum said. "They tell the American public they understand, they relate and they care. ... Like it or not, the best communicator, the best storyteller, that's who wins."

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