GOP Stars Flirt With Presidential Spotlight

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Sarah Palin signs autographs. Gerald Herbert/AP i

Sarah Palin signs autographs after speaking at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on Friday. Gerald Herbert/AP hide caption

toggle caption Gerald Herbert/AP
Sarah Palin signs autographs. Gerald Herbert/AP

Sarah Palin signs autographs after speaking at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on Friday.

Gerald Herbert/AP

The 2012 presidential election is a long way off, and it's far too early to know for sure who will even run for the Republican nomination, let alone get it. Still, the jockeying is well under way for potential candidates.

This week, several thousand GOP activists are gathering in New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, and the list of speakers includes some of those maybe-maybe-not challengers to President Obama.

When they opened the doors to the ballroom at New Orleans Riverside Hilton on Friday, the crowd rushed in, hustling down front and staking out space near the stage as though at a rock concert.

The attraction was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who mocked the president's policies both foreign and domestic. She called for the new health care law to be repealed and delivered an extended denunciation of the president's recent announcement that he'll open up more offshore areas for oil exploration. Long a drilling advocate, Palin says the plan accomplishes little and does it too slowly.

"It's 'drill, baby, drill,' and not, 'stall, baby, stall,'" she called out to the cheering audience.

Palin hasn't said if she's running in 2012. Many think she's using this year to promote her media career, but has no plans for a real campaign. Another prospect spoke to the conference a night earlier: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He, too, said he won't make up his mind until next year.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also considering a run, spoke highly of the tea party movement Friday, sending a message to fellow Republicans to look hard at what they did wrong when they swept into power a decade ago.

"Republicans got frustrated," he said. "They got frustrated because we elected men and women who went to Washington, D.C., with an R behind our names. And they went to D.C., and we couldn't tell if they were Republicans or Democrats. That's what happened to the Republican Party."

Saturday brings speeches by more people who could be in the mix when the campaign starts for real a year or so from now, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will speak via videotape, but attendees will not hear from two veterans of the 2008 primaries, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

Voting is already under way in a straw poll being taken at the event. Four years ago, at the same event, a similar straw poll was held. The winner back then was Tennessee's Bill Frist, then the Senate majority leader and widely assumed to be running. In the end, he didn't.

There was one other prominent speech at the conference Friday, by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. The social conservative cautioned the crowd about the midterm elections, saying that even with polls showing Democrats vulnerable this year — and Democratic votes far less enthusiastic than they were during the '08 campaign — nothing is guaranteed.

"Republicans need to be aware of the fact that just because the Democrats have stumbled and are stumbling — that's not going to be an automatic windfall for Republicans," Perkins said. "Republicans, remember, lost the confidence of Americans through excessive spending and their moral lapses. They have to regain the trust of the voters."

Perkins added the current controversies that the Republican National Committee is trying to overcome have done their damage. That includes a $2,000 tab for a night out with donors at a West Hollywood strip club, plus reports of lavish spending on private planes and other luxuries.

But others here maintain the RNC isn't on the minds of most voters, and most of those gathered this weekend believe they need come up with only good individual candidates. If they promote core Republican values, they figure, they'll fare quite well in comparison to the party in power come November.

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