That gathering, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, takes place this Thursday through Saturday in New Orleans. Among the speakers will be Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Bobby Jindal, Michael Steele, and Sarah Palin, whose speech will be closely watched for signs as to whether the former Alaska governor is serious about a presidential run or is opting instead a lucrative media career.
Notably absent, oddly enough, will be the only two prominent Republicans who have been doing the most staff hiring, fundraising, travel and networking to lay the groundwork for a 2012 run: Former Massachusetts governor and 2008 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has elected to continue his book tour instead of coming to the conference, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who pulled out in order to attend a welcome home ceremony for members of the armed forces.
Both men are widely expected to jump in the race, but both have their liabilities. While Romney has worked hard to establish his conservative credentials after taking moderate positions on some issues as Massachusetts governor, some on the right continue to be skeptical of him. And the passage of a health care reform package that looks a lot like the health care bill Romney signed into law in Massachusetts has had the ex-governor straining to make the case that the Massachusetts model has legitimate differences with what conservatives derisively call “ObamaCare.”
Pawlenty, meanwhile, is unknown to most Americans. While he has been making all the right moves to prepare for a presidential run, including raising money for and endorsing anti-spending Republican candidates, he has not come close to capturing the imagination of the GOP faithful. Perhaps in an effort to break through and generate a little buzz — and also draw a distinction with Romney — Pawlenty is pushing a lawsuit to overturn the health care bill. (He’s also not skipping the conference entirely — organizers tell Hotsheet he plans to send in a video address for the event.)
The current landscape means that many conservatives are hoping that a plausible alternative to Pawlenty and Romney emerges in the coming months — perhaps spurred by a winning speech at the conference seen by many as the unofficial kickoff to primary campaign season.
Palin, seemingly the brightest light in the GOP, remains a polarizing figure who many Republicans believe could not win in a general election; she has also laid little groundwork for a presidential run. The activists gathered at the conference will be looking for signs that the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee is interested in a run and willing to do the necessary hard work to win — or if she seems content to focus on her burgeoning media career, including her planned television show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska…