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GOP gathering a 'jump-start' to 2012 race

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Producer
  • Ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin among parade of potential 2012 GOP presidential contenders
  • Southern Republican Leadership Conference called "jump-start for the 2012 presidential cycle"
  • Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are skipping New Orleans conference
  • Palin's showing among rank-and-file GOP will be closely scrutinized

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Nearly 4,000 GOP insiders are descending Thursday on New Orleans for the start of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, thought by many to be the unofficial kickoff to the 2012 presidential cycle.

Along with speeches from party leaders, the conference's agenda includes strategy sessions and even a GOP-themed film festival -- not to mention behind-the-scenes networking and a sampling of the city's abundant food and drink. The conference is taking place just steps from Bourbon Street.

The Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association, eager to fill their coffers in a midterm election year, also are holding fundraisers to piggyback off the gathering, which takes place every four years.

But the main draw, especially for the 130 credentialed media organizations in attendance, will be the parade of potential presidential contenders.

Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere, one of the event's organizers, described the conference as "the jump-start for the 2012 presidential cycle."

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Among possible White House candidates in New Orleans: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, U.S. Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Ron Paul of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

But that roster has two glaring omissions: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The two Republicans who have most signaled their 2012 intentions are skipping the conference.

Romney is busy with a book tour. Pawlenty initially was slated to speak but changed his plans so he could attend a ceremony in Minnesota to welcome home troops returning from Iraq. He will instead address the conference with a recorded video message, an aide said.

Gingrich will open the event with a speech Thursday night, along with Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a board member of the conservative group Keep America Safe, and GOP strategist Mary Matalin.

Political observers will be keeping a close eye on the results of a 2012 straw poll -- to be released Saturday -- which could be an indicator not just of a potential candidate's organizational strength but also of his or her reputation among the party's professional class.

Unlike the Conservative Political Action Conference -- an annual event geared in large part toward grass-roots activists and college-age volunteers -- the gathering in New Orleans is considered more establishment. The crowd will include a mix of elected officials, top party strategists, political consultants and state party officials from around the region.

As a result, Palin's showing in the Big Easy will be closely scrutinized. Though few doubt her strength and influence within the Tea Party movement and among conservative grass-roots activists, many rank-and-file Republicans are not sold on the notion of Palin as a serious presidential contender.

According to a CBS News poll released Thursday, 43 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the former Alaska governor.

Though the GOP is outwardly confident about its chances in the November midterm elections, the conference also comes at a difficult time for the party, which has been mired in controversy for more than a week after revelations that the Republican National Committee paid for an outing at a sex-themed West Hollywood nightclub.

That disclosure resulted in the resignations of several top advisers at the RNC and put Chairman Michael Steele on the defensive over questions about his financial stewardship of the committee.

Steele is scheduled to address the conference Saturday, and he is expected to meet privately with party insiders in the coming days. Steele has been in contact with committee members since the scandal broke, but he will see many of them face to face in New Orleans.

Villere said that Steele's rocky tenure will definitely be a matter of discussion for himself and the other committee members who made the trip to New Orleans.

"Everybody is concerned, concerned with the fundraising issues and the image of the RNC," Villere said.

"We want to support the chairman, everyone wants to support the chairman. We're hoping this event gives us a chance to talk about it. I would think there is going to be some serious discussion about the future."