Conservatives Gather For GOP Leadership Conference

Republican leaders are meeting in New Orleans for a conference. The South has long been a GOP bastion, but Barack Obama did surprisingly well in the region with the support of black and young voters. Several of the Republican presidential candidates will be addressing the conference.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's a busy moment for political activists on the right and the left. They're at opposite ends of the Mississippi River. Liberal bloggers, a group known as Netroots, are meeting in Minneapolis, as we'll hear in a moment. We begin in New Orleans, which is hosting the Republican Leadership Conference. NPR's Debbie Elliott is there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Republicans here might not be united behind one candidate yet, but they do agree about one thing.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): I think right now any candidate we put forth would be a better alternative to the president we have.

ELLIOTT: That's former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is not a candidate. Even so, Huckabee remains a favorite of the mostly Southern Republicans meeting in New Orleans.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Hello.

JUDY: Hi.

Mr. HUCKABEE: How are you?

JUDY: I'm fine. I'm Judy.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Hi, Judy.

ELLIOT: Activists waited in a long line to get a quick handshake and autograph before the conference started yesterday. Two sisters from Slidell, Louisiana, Sally Villere and Kay Putnam, and their friend from Metairie, Becky Gauci, were thrilled to get a moment with Huckabee.

Unidentified Woman #1: I watch his program every weekend.

Unidentified Woman #2: We like him.

Unidentified Woman #1: I love him.

Unidentified Woman #2: We love him.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm sorry he's not running.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #3: Wanted to see him run. Run, Huck, run.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: I was a little disappointed too. I tell you, he's just -he's genuine.

ELLIOTT: Now they're looking to hear what the GOP candidates have to say about what these ladies agree is the nation's top problem - the faltering economy.

Ms. SALLY VILLERE: I'm 74 years old and I'm still working as a nurse.

Unidentified Woman #3: And I'm 68, I retired and went back to work, because I have to.

Ms. VILLERE: Yeah, have to work.

Unidentified Woman #3: I need the money. Retirement wasn't enough.

ELLIOTT: In a speech leading off the conference, Huckabee went right to work, decrying President Obama's economic policies.

Mr. HUCKABEE: If there was an economic GPS in the oval office of the White House, it would constantly every day be saying recalculating, recalculating, recalculating.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: Later, in the evening session, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ramped up the rhetoric.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Republican Presidential Candidate): Obama is the most successful food stamp president in American history. I would like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: Gingrich, hoping to revive his campaign after a mass exodus of his top staff, was received well by his fellow Southerners. But it was clear as they filed out of the ballroom that minds have not been made up.

Many said they were looking forward to hearing today's lineup, which includes Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, among others. But not who Ken Oustalet and his sister Denise Oustalet of New Orleans would like to see.

Mr. KEN OUSTALET: There are two. We wanted to hear Mitt Romney and Pawlenty, but neither of them are going to be here, so we're a little disappointed.

ELLIOTT: No Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney. But Saturday, a relatively new face is on the agenda - Texas Governor Rick Perry. Sandy Villere says that's somebody she can get excited about.

Ms. VILLERE: I was at this convention last year and I heard him speak and I thought, hmm, this guy has a chance.

ELLIOTT: Villere says she's waiting for the day he announces.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

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