[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/05/art.paul.gi.jpg caption ="Ron Paul is among a number of possible 2012 presidential contenders that will be attending this year’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference."]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."