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5 lessons from GOP's Southern gathering

By Kristi Keck, CNN
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin delivers a speech focusing on energy policy.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin delivers a speech focusing on energy policy.
  • Mitt Romney wins straw poll at Southern Republican Leadership Conference by one vote
  • Haley Barbour says climate is right for big GOP gains in midterm elections
  • Rick Santorum encourages Tea Party activists to run for office
  • RNC members throw their support behind chairman Michael Steele

(CNN) -- The GOP this past weekend wrapped up its annual Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where attendees discussed policy, lashed out at the Obama administration and laid the groundwork for what they hope will be a major comeback in the midterm elections.

More than a dozen speakers took the stage to rally and recharge Republicans during the three-day pep rally in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here are five lessons learned from the event.

1. No clear leader -- yet

The GOP has a slew of prominent voices, but Republicans have yet to produce a clear leader to carry the party mantle in 2012.

Nine prominent Republicans were on the ballot in the SRLC's 2012 straw poll. Former Massachusetts' Gov. Mitt Romney came out on top, beating Texas Rep. Ron Paul buy a single vote.

Romney and Paul each received 24 percent, followed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (18 percent each); former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (4 percent); Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (3 percent each); former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (2 percent); and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (1 percent).

Republican leaders, however, seemed to be in no rush finalize the playing field for 2012. Instead, they're focusing their efforts on the midterms.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who ran the Republican National Committee in 1994 when the GOP took back control of the House and Senate, said the environment in this midterm election year is better for Republicans than it was 16 years ago.

"The people in this country are very agitated," Barbour told CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley. "Republicans are energized. And independents are talking like, thinking like, and planning to vote like Republicans."

Barbour talks 2010 prospects

2. Palin acting more like the kingmaker than the king

2012 GOP contenders
Video: Gov. Barbour talks 2010 prospects
Video: Ron Paul on the state of the GOP
Video: Jindal to RNC: Avoid Bourbon Street

Palin's crowd-pleasing speech combined her usual partisan zingers with a heavy dose of policy. Palin spent about half of her talk expounding on differences between Democratic and Republican energy policies, a comfortable topic for the former Alaska governor and onetime chair of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Palin electrified the conference, bringing the audience to its feet multiple times. But despite the warm reception at the SRLC, just 24 percent of Americans view Palin favorably, according to a CBS News poll released last week.

Recently, the onetime VP candidate has been spending more time in the public eye than doing the behind-the-scenes leg work to prepare for a national campaign. She joined Fox News as a contributor and inked a deal for a new series on the Discovery Channel. She also hit the campaign trail for congressional candidates.

While Republicans seem to love her star power, they're not exactly lobbying for a presidential campaign.

Asked whether she'd be a worthy opponent in 2012, Gingrich said, "Well, I mean, if my choice was Sarah Palin or Barack Obama, I would rather have Sarah Palin."

Pressed on what he'd do if the choice were between himself and Palin, Gingrich said he couldn't comment because "that would be silly."

Barbour also offered up a diplomatic answer when asked whether Palin is qualified to be president.

"Well, of course, I didn't think President Obama had the background experience to be qualified, so the fact of the matter is, she is legally qualified, and after that, it's up to the American people," he said.

Former Republican Rep. J.C. Watts said if he had to guess whether Palin would run in 2012, at this point, he'd say no.

"I think she has positioned herself to be a kingmaker, probably not the king," he said.

But before writing off the possibility of a White House run, just remember Palin is never one to do the expected.

iReport: Palin at the conference

3. The Tea Party has a place in the GOP

Republican leaders, who in the past have offered the Tea Party a one-armed embraced, appeared more welcoming of the anti-Washington movement.

Tea Party activists received nods from many of the big-name speakers, including Palin, Barbour and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, encouraged Tea Party activists to run for Congress. "Go beat them," he said to a Tea Party member who expressed that moderate Republicans -- and not conservatives -- would be on the ballot in November.

"That's what elections are all about. I encourage candidates to run," Santorum said. "This is where we have to focus our energy, right now in the primaries, to make sure that we elect conservative candidates in the Republican primaries."

Barbour, the chair of the Republican Governors Association, asked attendees, "How do we win in 2010?"

"We stick together," he said. "Conservative unity has to be part of that conservative energy"

"The Democrats' fondest hope is to see Tea Party or other conservatives split off and have a third party to split the conservative vote," Barbour added. "We can't let that happen. We've got to stay unified."

iReport: Republicans on the tea party movement

4. Steele's not going anywhere

Despite the recent controversy surrounding Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, his job appears to be secure.

Steele offered a mea culpa in the final speech of the conference.

"I'm the first here to admit I've made mistakes and its incumbent on me to take responsibility, shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on," Steele told a polite but half-empty ballroom on Saturday.

"The one mistake we cannot make this November is to lose," he said.

Steele has battled two weeks of bad headlines after it was revealed that the RNC spent donor money at a sex-themed Hollywood nightclub -- a controversy that exacerbated grumbling among Republicans already skeptical of Steele's ability to raise the money needed to compete in November.

Before Steele's speech, enough RNC members publicly backed their embattled leader to make it mathematically impossible for him to be removed from his job before his term expires next year, barring some unforeseen implosion.

RNC members voice support for Steele

5. The GOP can make fun of itself

Although some might say it's too soon, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made light of the still-lingering scandal.

Jindal took to the stage and welcomed conference-goers to New Orleans. He told them to "enjoy our great food, our great music, our great culture."

Then this: "A word of warning to RNC staffers: You may want to stay away from Bourbon Street," he said of the street known for its bars and adult-themed venues. "Just a word of advice."

The joke drew laughter and applause from the crowd.

CNN's Peter Hamby contributed to this report.