Republicans may not yet have the ideal candidate to take on President Obama in 2012. But at least they have an apprentice program.

"This is the largest crowd we have ever had in eager anticipation of our next speaker!" Lisa De Pasquale, director of the Conservative Political Action Conference, told the annual gathering last week. "We have overflow rooms filled! This ballroom filled!"

The reason for this eager anticipation, and for the whoops and hollers from the crowd: "someone who is thinking about tossing his hat in the ring for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination."

The sound system played the theme from NBC's "The Apprentice." A puff of orange hair appeared on the stage, and somewhere underneath it was the billionaire Donald Trump, giving a flirtatious, finger-wiggling wave to the crowd.

"You're hired!" a woman in the front called out to him.

Basking in the adulation, Trump announced: "These are my people!"

Oh? The last time Trump tested the presidential waters, as a prospective Reform Party candidate a decade ago, he favored abortion rights, campaign finance reform and universal health care. He's thrice married and has had many girlfriends in and out of wedlock. He's behaved erratically in his handling of the Miss USA competition. He's contributed to Democrats as recently as four months ago. And - unbeknownst to most in the audience - he was invited to CPAC by a gay Republican group, GOProud, whose participation in the conference sparked a boycott by social conservatives.

"Over the years I've participated in many battles and have really almost come out very, very victorious every single time," the Donald said. (Except for the bankruptcy, that is.) "I've beaten many people and companies, and I've won many wars," he added. (Though he didn't serve in the military.) "I have fairly but intelligently earned many billions of dollars, which in a sense was both a scorecard and acknowledgment of my abilities."

And the best part? "I may be willing to put that to work" - as a candidate for president. (Oh, please, Donald!) But only reluctantly would he accept the Republican nomination. "Frankly, I wish there was a candidate that I saw that would be fantastic, 'cause I love what I'm doing."

Trump's gambit is almost certainly a publicity stunt. What makes it interesting is how eager the conservatives were to embrace him, shifting the afternoon's schedule at the last minute when he agreed to appear. It speaks to the Republican Party's leadership vacuum: Only a party deeply dissatisfied with its current slate of candidates would swoon for this guy.

In theory, 2012 could be a good year for Republicans, particularly if job growth doesn't accelerate. But a solid challenger to President Obama has eluded the conservatives who dominate the party. They need somebody with the looks of John Thune, the managerial experience of Mitt Romney, the folksiness of Mike Huckabee, the Tea Party appeal of Michele Bachmann, the brains of Newt Gingrich and the record of Mitch Daniels. But no such animal exists.

Producer Mark Joseph, who has done a film about Ronald Reagan, outlined the problem in a CPAC session Thursday. "The coalition that President Reagan put together," he said, "is fraying today because it was united by one man who had something in common with all of them."

In the absence of such a beast, the party is fracturing, both on Capitol Hill (where House Republican leaders lost two key votes last week) and at CPAC (where various socially conservative groups boycotted and the chairman, David Keene, accelerated his retirement this week). The lack of enthusiasm for the candidates was on display in the ballroom, where hundreds of seats were empty for speeches by would-be candidates Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

But they spilled out of the room for Trump. He timed his flirtation too late to be included on the CPAC straw-poll ballot, but he knew just what the crowd wanted to hear. "Just very briefly, I'm pro-life" (cheers), "I'm against gun control" (louder cheers), "and I will fight to end Obamacare" (loudest cheers). The rest of his agenda involved beating up on the Chinese, OPEC and Somali pirates. "We'd blast them out of the water so fast," he vowed.

Beyond that, it was mostly Trump's signature self-praise: "most competitive . . . greatest . . . the best." When some of the Paulites in the crowd called out their candidate's name, Trump fired back, "Ron Paul cannot get elected." The Paul supporters booed; most of the others in the house cheered.

Trump is correct about Paul's viability. But the CPAC crowd's willingness to consider the flamboyant billionaire as an alternative reveals a certain amount of desperation.