New Orleans (CNN) - Nearly 4,000 GOP insiders are descending on New Orleans Thursday for the start of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, thought by many to be the unofficial kick-off to the 2012 presidential cycle.
Along with speeches from party leaders, the SRLC agenda includes strategy sessions, local food tastings and even a GOP-themed film festival - not to mention several days 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, are also holding fundraisers to piggyback off the gathering, which takes places 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."
Among the possible White House candidates: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
That roster has two glaring omissions, however: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the two Republicans who done the most to signal their 2012 intentions, are skipping the conference.
Romney is busy with his book tour. Pawlenty was initially slated to speak, but changed his plans to attend a welcome home ceremony in Minnesota for 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 and GOP strategist Mary Matalin.
Political observers will be keeping a close eye on the results of 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 grassroots activists and college-aged volunteers - the SRLC is considered a more establishment event. 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 grassroots 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, just 43 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the former Alaska governor.
Though the GOP is outwardly confident about it's chances in this November's 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 it was revealed that the RNC paid for an outing at a sex-themed Hollywood nightclub.
That disclosure resulted in the resignations of several top advisers at the RNC and has chairman Michael Steele on the defensive over questions about his financial stewardship of the committee.
Steele is scheduled to address the conference on Saturday, and he is expected to meet privately with a number of party insiders in the coming days. Though Steele has been in contact with members of the committee since the scandal broke, he will see many of them face-to-face when he gets to 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 told CNN. "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."
Well, let's see if they can produce substantiated critics against the Democrats and not the festival of parroting that was happening at the CPAC.
The interesting bit of this story is the 'GOP-themed film festival', any Frank Capra or John Ford feature will be exhibited? 'Forrest Gump' is a sure presence...
Bunch of extremist losers!
In which New Oreleans strip club is this REPUBLICAN conference taking place?
You know what would be REALLY nice? Since we all know they hate President Obama and the Democrats, I don't think they need to revisit that as much as the GOP needs to have a platform of something. Are they FOR anything at all? Maybe after they decide who their candidate will be they can concentrate on helping their constituents? Or is that just wishful thinking?
What exactly DO they propose? I mean, aside from being against everything and their 'replace and repeal', I've yet to hear what their plans are for moving the Nation forward – I realize they'd really like to move the Nation backwards, but they should at least have some ideas, no?
Palin, Gingrich & Santorum are too polarizing to win the middle. Perry's been moving right to try to appeal to Texas wingnutters.
How do you do this article and not mention Ron Paul winning CPAC by the largest margin ever?
I LOVE how the GOP keeps the same, brain dead, dried out skaggs in the spot light. By doing this, it shows they have NO new leadership, NO new plans of change for the better, NO incentive for the American People to believe in them, NO new policy of affairs within thier party, and NO desire to change or inspire the American Dream...
Basically the GOP is now NO. Party of NO and it just so happens they are meeting in NO (New Orleans).
Nothing but a bunch of prideful twits.
I love New Orleans! The food and scenery are wonderful. Why spoil it by inviting 4,000 people that belong to the party of the man that did so little for your situation in Katrina? The money will help your economy though. Just remember who your friends are and who turned their heads when you needed them most.
They are probably all stocked up on beads that they can throw at bare-chested women.
Newt Gingrich is nothing but a soothsayer and any Christian or good person listening to whatever he has to say is being deceived and is cooperating with demonic designs.
I cannot believe the GOP they just cannot take it they lost in 2008 to President Obama. Please quit running for office and work with the President to solve the horrible mess the last President George W. Bush left President Obama to fix.
Wish I owned a Strip Club there!
Man I wish I had the " White Sheet " cnccesion there.
Alright RNC donors...time to contribute. The GOP is going out for a couple nights on the town. Anyone know the best S&M Lesbian Bondage joints in the Big Easy?
Moderation? Need I remind you the RNC is an organization putting itself in the public eye. There have been numerous stories on CNN and other stations regarding RNC members trying to get the RNC to reimburse them for taking members to S&M Bondage Lesbian clubs in LA.
You will need a leader and a plan for this country before you can jumpstart anything. Your current "Circus Show" is not an option for America.
The SLRC, including the possible White House candidates: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, will all be there. At the same time. En masses. Together.
Poor NOLA, haven't they been though enough already?
None of the republican contenders will be able to hold a match to President Obama which will guarantee him a 2nd term, that's for sure. They had better come up with someone strong who can stand against President Obama if they want to win the white house back, which I doubt they will. And furthermore, you best believe the democratic voters will come out in droves again, across this nation, for the 2012 presidential election which will be a hugh plus for Obama's win.
It would be nice if Ron Paul had the guts to stay in the fight this time. Screw the republican party and the democrat one as well. Go as an Independent. I would say that most people out there are sick of both parties and looking for real change, not lip service. Go Ron Paul.
Ron Paul 2012
The rest are a bunch of neo-cons and will do no different than Bush or Obama. Only one man has remained principled throughout his time in D.C.; RON PAUL!
The R3VOLUTION does not need to be televised, it cannot be stopped.
It is written in her PALM..."You Betcha"
The GOP perennial parade has begun. The gas bags of the republithug party are in full display. The same old tired faces, the same old tired ideas, the same old lies and the same old deceptions.
Don't listen to what they say. Look at what they've done then ask yourself would you be better off following these shills for the rich and powerful who intend to keep things that way. Vote for the republithugs return to power and reap what you sow.
Wake up people. Vote for your interests not theirs. The republithugs don't give a hoot about the average American. They cater to the white power establishment. When they talk to you it's to get your money and to make you feel that the "good old days are just around the corner". Just give them another chance and all will be well in America. Then stop and think what they actually did when George Bush was president.
Bungled two wars, one of which should never have been fought, caused the greatest financial disaster since the Great Depression, rolled back taxes for the richest Americans, caused the largest deficits in modern history before the financial collapse, confirmed the two most right wing supreme court justices in 50 years.
I wish I could go there and vote for Ron paul. He's the one we need to straighten out this country. I'm tired of the lies, bribes and corruption and he's the voice of honesty, we need him bad.
the Tea party, Virginia's confed governor, Ron Paul, Michael Steele chatching it, yea we know where this is going,