Republicans focus efforts on November, say 2012 can wait
The Southern Republican Leadership Conference has become known in recent years as an early testing ground for would-be presidential candidates, a place to make an impression on party activists and the media. But there is a far different message coming out of New Orleans this weekend: 2012 can wait.
A host of potential candidates trooped through the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel during the three-day gathering -- Sarah Palin being the most prominent, although not necessarily the best received -- but the gathering had none of the feel of four years ago in Memphis.
In 2006, buffeted by growing dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush and heading toward midterm elections in which they ultimately lost control of the House and Senate, Republicans were eager to jump ahead to 2008. Every major potential candidate made an appearance, and all the hallway conversations revolved around a nomination battle far off into the future.
This year, the roughly 3,000 activists from across the South have their eyes on 2010, as do the politicians who may seek the nomination in two years. With President Obama and the Democrats weakened, the energy and enthusiasm on display throughout the weekend reflect optimism among Republicans that, after drubbings in 2006 and 2008, a genuine turnaround may be on the horizon -- if they don't get distracted or divided.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a young party staff member in his home state when the SRLC was born 40 years ago, delivered that message at a breakfast for Southern GOP chairmen and members of the Republican National Committee that was hosted by the Republican Governors Association.
Quoting Fred Smith, the founder and chairman of FedEx, Barbour told the group: "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is winning in 2010. . . . Then we'll worry about 2012."
Like many conference speakers this weekend, Barbour could have his eye on a presidential campaign in two years. But he asked the organizers of the presidential straw poll not to put his name on the ballot. "I'm trying to practice what I preach," he said. "I didn't think we ought to have a [straw poll] ballot."
Barbour understands how meaningless such early straw polls are -- the winner in 2006 was then-Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who eventually decided not even to run for president. Barbour also understands how embarrassing it can be to perform badly, especially in your home region.
As a former national party chairman at the time of the GOP's 1994 victory, Barbour knows that the best thing he can do as a prospective candidate is to help Republicans maximize the party's gains in 2010. He is taking every opportunity to do so.
Barbour, the chairman of the GOP governors group, is moving deftly to fill the vacuum left by RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who is under fire and on the defensive after a series of gaffes and missteps by his committee.