By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; A03
NEW ORLEANS -- Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin captivated a crowd of more than 3,000 Republican Party activists here Friday with a speech featuring the same blend of folksiness and anti-Obama fire that has made her an icon within the grass-roots "tea party" movement.
In her second major speech since she appeared at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention in February, Palin's blistering criticism of President Obama was greeted with wild enthusiasm, providing evidence that Palin can reach establishment Republican voters.
Palin, whom Obama dismissed recently as "not much of an expert on nuclear issues," fired back at the president, mockingly referring to "all that vast nuclear expertise he acquired as a community organizer, a part-time senator and a candidate for president." She said Obama had accomplished "nothing to date with Iran or North Korea."
"Don't retreat. Reload!" she said, invoking a slogan that has lately earned her some criticism. The crowd cheered deafeningly as she added, "And that is NOT a call for violence!"
The highlights of Palin's speech mirrored those of nearly every other headliner at the annual Southern Republican Leadership Conference, which began Thursday with remarks from Newt Gingrich and Liz Cheney and continued Friday with appearances by Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
All set their sights on Obama, and all were able to whip up the crowd with promises that public mistrust of the president's agenda will translate into big Republican gains in this fall's crucial midterm elections.
The speeches by Palin and Gingrich, potential presidential contenders, gave thousands of activists a chance to look toward 2012. But the greatest cheers and longest ovations greeted the rallying cries for the November congressional elections, which speaker after speaker called a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Republicans to block Obama's "radical socialist agenda."
That made the gathering less of a presidential cattle call and more of a campaign kickoff for 2010.
"Between now until November, when they say, 'Yes we can,' we say, 'Oh no you don't!' " Palin told a packed ballroom in a hotel alongside the Mississippi River. "Freedom is a God-given right, and it is worth fighting for. This is a party that will usher in a new era of prosperity. It starts with us. And it can start today. I say we stand together and take our country back."
Perry brought listeners to their feet with a thundering address in which he praised activists across the country for joining the tea party movement and opposing Obama's policies.
"The momentum is building," Perry said. "In fact, if you had told me a year ago that we would see this powerful resurgence -- let me tell you . . . there has never been an election more important to us as a people than in 2010."
The conference began Thursday, when Gallup reported that the Democratic Party's image had dropped to its lowest point in 18 years.
Forty-one percent of Americans say they have a positive impression of the Democrats, five points below the previous low in 2005.
A slightly larger number, 42 percent, said they view Republicans positively, meaning Democrats no longer hold the advantage over Republicans in public opinion, as they have for the past four years. Just last summer, that advantage was 11 points.
On Thursday, Gingrich described Obama as the most radical president in the history of the country. Cheney assailed his foreign policy, which she summed up as: "Apologize for America, abandon our allies and appease our enemies."
Speaker after speaker called for a repeal of the health legislation under a Republican-controlled Congress.
Gingrich once again deflected questions about whether he would seek the nomination in 2012, urging the crowd to focus on 2010, the party's more immediate challenge. Jindal announced in his speech Friday that he won't run for president. Perry, who is seeking reelection this year, didn't mention presidential politics.
The conference continues Saturday with appearances by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Also speaking will be Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who is under fire for a string of controversies.
Staff writers Dan Balz and David Weigel contributed to this report.