| NEW ORLEANS
NEW ORLEANS Republican firebrand Sarah Palin fired up party loyalists on Friday with a biting critique of President Barack Obama's new plan for offshore oil and gas drilling as nothing more than "stall, baby, stall."
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former governor of Alaska, did not say she planned to run for president in 2012 but did nothing to discourage speculation in a speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
A polarizing figure in American politics, Palin found a hearty welcome from several thousand conservatives who stampeded into a hotel ballroom to grab seats for her speech and filled every one of them within minutes.
And they cheered her on, particularly when she outlined some proposed slogans for bumper stickers to reflect their disapproval of the ruling Democrats: "Repeal and Replace," referring to a law that overhauls healthcare, and: "How's that Hopey, Changey Thing Working Out for You?"
Her favorite was, "Don't Retreat. Reload."
"Nobody's calling for violence," she quickly noted.
Hand-held cameras were held high as Palin took the stage and she received standing ovations from the crowd that took aim at Obama from every direction.
She was among several potential Republican presidential candidates to appear at the New Orleans conference testing the political winds. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared he was not running for president and said Republicans should actively try to repeal the U.S. healthcare overhaul pushed through Congress by the Democrats.
"This is no time to be timid," he said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry urged a return to conservative values as advocated by members of the Tea Party movement, saying Republicans in the past had supported too much government spending. "Don't tell me you're a Republican and then go spend all the money," he said.
Palin tangled with Obama earlier in the week over his decision to limit the use of nuclear weapons, saying it was like being in a playground fight and one child says, "Go ahead, punch me in the face, and I'm not going to retaliate."
OFFSHORE OIL DRILLING
Obama, in a rare response to Palin, told ABC News: "The last I checked, Sarah Palin is not much of an expert on nuclear issues," prompting a sarcastic rejoinder from Palin that "all the vast experience he acquired as a community organizer" made him a nuclear expert.
Palin spent a great deal of her speech criticizing Obama's offshore oil drilling plan announced last week as insufficient to help wean America off foreign oil.
Under the plan, Obama would allow drilling off the coast of Virginia but ruled out the California coast and some areas of Alaska. Environmentalists have not been happy with the Obama plan either because of fears of polluting coastal areas.
Mocking what she called the "snake oil-based, global warming, Gore-gate" crowd, Palin said Republican candidates seeking to gain seats in November congressional elections should push the energy theme in their campaigns.
"There's nothing stopping us from achieving energy independence that a good old national election can't fix," she said.
While popular with conservatives, Palin has far to go to gain the confidence of other Americans.
A CBS News poll found last week that 38 percent of Americans view her unfavorably, 24 percent view her favorably and 37 percent said they were undecided or had not heard enough about her to have an opinion.
One participant in the conference, Jake Schnapp of New Orleans, doubted Palin will run for president but likes her as a prominent Republican voice.
"Palin is a good ambassador. I am not discounting her. But I think she's more of a factor as an ambassador," he said.
His wife, Lois Schnapp, said no Republican had yet emerged, in the New Orleans conference or elsewhere, as an obvious choice to become the party's standard-bearer for 2012.
"I don't see a Republican candidate that has surfaced yet," she said. "But we have time."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)