Republicans ponder 2010, and 2012, in New Orleans

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Who will rise from the Republican Party to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012? The first blush of an answer could come this weekend in New Orleans.

Supporters attend a campaign rally for Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona March 27, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

As many as 3,000 party activists are to attend the four-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the most prominent gathering of Republicans outside of their presidential nominating conventions.

Several potential presidential wannabes will address the conference, testing themes and messages as Republicans gird for congressional elections this November and ponder who should represent them in 2012.

The headliner is Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee and former governor of Alaska, who is hugely popular among the party’s conservative base.

She is to address the gathering on Friday with a speech criticizing Obama’s offshore oil drilling plans, unveiled last week, as insufficient to add significantly to U.S. fuel supplies.

“Instead of ‘drill, baby, drill,’ the more you look into this the more you realize it’s ‘stall, baby, stall,’” she said last week.

The Republican conference presents the party faithful an opportunity to search for the best ways to attract voters, taking advantage of Americans’ concerns about the weak U.S. economy and the healthcare overhaul that Obama’s Democrats pushed through Congress.

“You have a lot of folks right now who want to speak to a lot of the party faithful about how we best go about drawing a contrast with the Obama administration and Democrats and how we best articulate those contrasts,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, an adviser to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor seriously considering a 2012 presidential run.

Also speaking are other leading Republican lights, and possible candidates, such as former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

Not attending are Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is expected to address the group by video, and Romney, who lost the Republican nomination to John McCain in 2008. Both had scheduling conflicts.

Attendees will conduct a straw poll of who they like in 2012. Its significance is uncertain, since then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist won the poll in 2006. His presidential campaign never got off the ground.

While Republicans are optimistic about making inroads into the Democrats’ strong majorities in the House and Senate this November, they have no clue as to which candidate they should rally behind to face Obama in two years.


“It’s completely unclear who the Republican Party presidential nominee is going to be,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “There is no candidate right now who unites all the Republicans.”

Katon Dawson, former chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina, said the New Orleans conference would provide grass-roots activists an early look at possible candidates to determine who they might want to work for in 2012.

“You’ve got the leadership, elected officials, some potential presidential candidates. It’s still early yet to put their names in the public arena, but it’s not too early to put their names in the private arena,” he said.

The New Orleans conference of party faithful comes as Republicans face good and bad news.

Republicans are poised for victories in the November congressional elections in which all 435 House seats and more than a third of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for grabs.

It is the most optimistic time in years for Republicans after losses in 2006 and 2008, but the party has been grappling with a distraction surrounding Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who will address the conference on Saturday.

Steele is facing heavy criticism from within the party for spending the party’s money too freely, a reputation he is trying to reverse after a party organizer billed the RNC for $2,000 spent at a sex-themed nightclub in Los Angeles.

Republican leaders have also not figured out how to ensure the backing of activists from the Tea Party and persuade the largely conservative movement not to form a third political party.

“I am sure that the Democrats and the White House have worn out three sets of kneepads down on their knees praying for ... the Tea Party to actually become a third party, because if you can have a third party that’s a conservative party, that’s the Democrats’ dream, to split the conservative vote,” Barbour told


Editing by David Alexander and Peter Cooney