GOP Presidential Hopefuls Speak In New Orleans

Several presidential candidates addressed the Republican Leadership Conference Friday. Robert Siegel speaks with NPR's Debbie Elliott.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Republican presidential candidates are courting their party's Southern base this weekend in New Orleans. It's the annual gathering of the Republican Leadership Conference, a chance for party activists to hear from some in the crowded field of GOP hopefuls and from a few other Republican stars.

NPR's Debbie Elliott is there, and she joins us now. And Debbie, first, who's making the biggest waves there today?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Well, I'd have to say Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She's here fresh off announcing her candidacy. There was a lot of excitement before she took the stage. And she came out assuring everyone she has the right conservative credentials. She said: I'm a fiscal conservative. I'm a social conservative, and I'm a Tea Party conservative. And the crowd was certainly with her. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of applause)

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Because the Tea Party and all of America has one goal, and it's this: that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: In terms of policy, Bachmann said she planned to repeal the health care law. That was very popular here. And she criticized the president for what she described as the morbid obesity of taxes and spending, another very popular theme.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us about who else is talking to the Republicans in New Orleans and whether the Republicans there seem to be happy with the field or perhaps starting to rally behind one candidate.

ELLIOTT: You know, I don't think they're rallying behind any one candidate. I think - unless they've been with that candidate for a long time now. For example, there was a very large and loud contingent here for Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who has quite a following.

Otherwise, people say they are waiting to see who emerges. Most people I talked with were undecided. They thought there were a few people they liked, but they really wanted to hear more, and they were open to somebody else possibly emerging.

You know, Rick Perry, the Texas governor, is going to speak here on Saturday, and a lot of people are anticipating that and happy that he is now considering a run. But everyone got a pretty warm reception here.

Herman Cain, the businessman from Atlanta, was certainly a favorite here with his Southern charm on display.

Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Businessman): I have a dream, and that dream is you are looking at the next president of United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CAIN: Look at me.

ELLIOTT: He joked that party insiders say he doesn't know how D.C. works, and his response was: Well, I know. It doesn't work. That's why I'm running.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Now, the frontrunner, according to the polls, Mitt Romney, is notably absent from this meeting, along with Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota. What's the reaction to their absence?

ELLIOTT: You know, some people are disappointed. They say they wanted to hear from them. A few people actually, though, were more than disappointed. They say that Romney's absence is somehow a bit of a snub to the South; that he should be here. This is the party's base, and he needs to be talking to this audience.

Otherwise, there is certainly a lot of disappointment in the room that Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, is not here. She has a lot of supporters in this group. And in fact, some are so hopeful that there's been like a rumor floating around in the hallways that maybe, maybe she's going to have a surprise appearance. You know, don't be surprised if she doesn't show up. Officially, of course, we've heard nothing like that.

SIEGEL: OK, thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott, reporting from the Republican Leadership Congress in New Orleans.

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