WASHINGTON – Just how wide open is the Republican presidential field? Vast enough that Donald Trump may want you to hire him.

The billionaire real estate mogul and host of television’s “The Apprentice” got a raucous reception Thursday when he dangled a potential candidacy before thousands of conservatives who descended on the nation’s capital eager to help a GOP challenger deny President Obama a second term.

“The United States is becoming the laughingstock of the world,” Trump said, sounding every bit a candidate as he offered his rationale for a possible bid. In a speech sprinkled with quips and jabs, he said he would decide by June whether to run.

“The Donald” was among almost a dozen potential presidential candidates, in various stages of considering a 2012 run, auditioning before 11,000 conservatives at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference. Some are more serious about it than others.

The annual gathering marked the unofficial start of the GOP presidential nomination fight. Not a single Republican has announced his or her candidacy and each day seems to bring a new player into the mix. There is no clear front-runner to take on the Democratic incumbent.

Would-be contenders were using the event to test messages, introduce themselves and gauge support.

“This is about making Barack Obama a one-term president,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party favorite who’s flirting with a bid. Opening the conference as the keynote speaker, she said, “We’re all about winning in 2012.” She didn’t say whether she planned to enter the race.

Neither did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

He did give a glimpse of his likely platform, using his speech to criticize Obama’s policies as a “war on American energy” and propose replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with an Environmental Solutions Agency that he said would reward innovation, could help create jobs and increase national security.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who lost in 2006 but is popular among anti-abortion activists and might run for president, claimed that Democrats were too eager to criticize their own country. “Some see America as less than perfect or downright imperfect. … Well, I disagree with that,” Santorum said.

All three earned polite applause and standing ovations.

But it was Trump, who showed interest in 1988 and 2000 in running for president but never did, who brought down the house, even upstaging a surprise appearance by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

As Trump — who has donated to both Republican and Democratic candidates — took the stage, a person in the standing-room-only crowd shouted “You’re hired,” a play on his reality show tagline of “you’re fired.”

He hit the right notes for the audience, noting that he made “billions” as a successful businessman, and saying: “It’s a little different than what you’ve been hearing.”