Updated 2:53 p.m. ET, 3/6/2014
National Harbor, Maryland (CNN) - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, receiving a warm reception from a large conservative audience Thursday, said the GOP needs to change the way it shares its message with voters in order to defeat Democrats in future elections.
"We've got to start talking about what we're for and not what we're against," the Republican governor said. "Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that's what we have to stand up for."
Christie spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference - better known by its initials, CPAC - which kicked off Thursday at National Harbor, a major convention center just outside of the nation's capital. The conference is the largest annual gathering of conservative leaders and activists.
When there's no Republican in the White House, it's a must-attend cattle call for GOP presidential hopefuls looking to pass the conference's conservative litmus test.
The pragmatic second-term governor, never popular with many in the party's conservative base, was not invited to last year's conference. CPAC organizers said Christie was snubbed because some of his positions were not conservative enough.
No spit-balling in the states
As current chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie highlighted the work of several GOP governors in tackling entitlement reform, pointing to the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Florida–all of whom are up for re-election this year.
Christie, a consistent critic of Washington, argued that states are accomplishing more progress than lawmakers in the nation's capital.
"Leadership is about getting in and getting something done and making government work. Leadership is not about standing on the sidelines and spit-balling," he said. "And that's all we see all across Washington, D.C. but it's not what we see in the states."
Reacting to the speech, Ted Dooley, a Republican student at Boston College, argued Christie was creating a pathway for 2016.
"You could tell it was setting a platform for a Republican governor winning in 2016. I think that was the major undertone of his speech," he said.
Joe Graziano, a New Jersey political consultant, said he thought Christie's speech was "good."
"He certainly captures the state well, he embodied the state of New Jersey," he said.
Quiet about problems back in New Jersey
Unsurprisingly, Christie said nothing of the controversy he faces at home. State and federal investigations are underway over allegations that some of his aides closed access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not endorsing Christie's re-election.
The governor has denied knowing anything about the gridlock until after it occurred, and has said he knew nothing about any political mischief by members of his administration. But the scandal's put a cloud over Christie's political future, which may include a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes CPAC, said the national media coverage of the controversies in New Jersey might help Christie with the party's base, which doesn't like to see Republicans attacked by the media, adding that the episode's made conservatives "kindred spirits with Gov. Christie."
James Newberry of McLean, Virginia said he liked Christie's speech, but he wouldn't vote for him because of the bridge controversy.
"The scandal really bothers me. Just the corruption, the kind of people he had around him. It just seemed very petty and his state already has a reputation for corruption," he said. "He's...a little bit like Richard Nixon as far as the dirty tricks and stuff."
Aurelian Braun, a masters student at Hillsdale College in Michigan, liked the speech but is still upset with Christie over his embrace of Obama in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. The two were seen side-by-side just days before the 2012 presidential election, and Christie was accused by fellow Republicans of elevating the President's image.
"He raised awareness for President Obama with low information voters," Braun said. "And that's one of the big ways that the Democrats beat us in the general election. In the general election it's getting information out to low information voters."
'Party of intolerance'
Christie argued Thursday the media was also to blame for any Republican disconnect with voters.
"We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for," he said, adding a story about a reporter who claimed the GOP was intolerant on social issues. Christie, who reminded the audience of his own anti-abortion views, argued Republicans were more open-minded and more inclusive of pro-abortion rights candidates and voters than Democrats are of anti-abortion views.
"We've had people like Tom Ridge and Colin Powell and Condi Rice speak at our national conventions, even though our party platform and I don't agree with their position on abortion," he said. "Tell me…the last pro-life Democrat who was allowed to speak at a Democratic convention…By the way, don't strain yourself 'cause there's never been one."
"They're the party of intolerance, not us," he said.
'We have an opportunity inequality problem'
While the governor preached Republican principles, he took time to blast the Obama administration over the economy and foreign policy.
"We need to talk about the fact that we are for a free market society that allows your effort and your ingenuity to determine your success–not the cold hard hand of government determining winners and losers, which is what this administration is all about."
He also seemed hit Obama over the President's recent efforts to raise the minimum wage.
"We don't need, Mr. President, your opinion on inequality," he said. "We don't have an inequality problem, we have an opportunity inequality problem."
On foreign policy, Christie argued "dysfunction in D.C. and lack of leadership in the White House" have made the country significantly lose its global influence.
"We need to make sure we say we are for am being a leader in the world, and we are for a strong national defense, not one that allows other countries to run us over all over the world.
Straw poll ballot
Christie is one of 25 names on the CPAC GOP presidential nomination straw poll. The results will be released on Saturday, as the conference closes.
The results of the CPAC straw poll are analyzed and scrutinized on TV and online. But the idea that the results are any kind of barometer of what will actually happen in the battle for the GOP nomination are extremely debatable.
For a second straight year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked that his name not be placed on the ballot.
Last year's contest ended up being a two-person race, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky winning the straw poll with 25% of the vote, one percentage point ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. The 21 other people on the ballot were far behind, registering in single digits.
CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.