By Dan Balz
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A02
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.
The breakfast Barbour hosted Saturday was a not-so-subtle way to establish the governors group as central to the party's rebuilding hopes, and to make himself one of its leading voices in shaping both the message and strategy for 2010.
Republicans are determined to reverse the policies of the Obama administration. That makes winning control of the House or Senate the party's highest priority this year. But Barbour reminded the breakfast audience that not only did governors help rebuild the party in the 1990s but also that there is a greater chance of winning congressional races if there is a strong incumbent GOP governor or winning gubernatorial candidate on the ballot.
Barbour had another message when he spoke later on Saturday: Republicans could squander their opportunities if they do not remain united. He said the party should make room for tea party activists and keep them in the conservative movement.
"The Democrats' fondest hope is to see tea-party or other conservatives split off and have a third party and split the conservative [vote]," he said. He added: "Please leave here unified and stay that way through November and beyond."
The list of prospective 2012 candidates who appeared in New Orleans included, in addition to Barbour and Palin, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), a presidential candidate in 2008.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who stayed in the state to welcome home National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq, spoke by video. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, two of the three finalists for the 2008 GOP nomination, skipped the New Orleans gathering.
Palin was clearly the biggest draw and got an enthusiastic response. Whether she will try to convert her celebrity status into being a candidate or choose to play kingmaker to another candidate in 2012 isn't clear yet. She should not be underestimated as a force within the party, but the weekend showed that she isn't the only Republican who can appeal both to tea party activists and GOP rank-and-file.
Perry, who has said he is not interested in running for president and faces a competitive reelection in Texas, spoke several hours after Palin and received a reception that was easily the equal of hers. His message, which blended Texas-centric pride and traditional Republican doctrine with a strong dose of tea-party-inspired rhetoric attacking Washington, seemed ready-made for conservative audiences in 2010.
Gingrich attacked Obama in the strongest terms possible and urged Republicans to become "the party of yes" if they are to regain the confidence of the American people. Asked about his plans for 2012, Gingrich said he would decide early next year, but he echoed Barbour by saying, "Let's all get out and campaign this year to win this year's election."
None of these possible presidential candidates -- those who came to New Orleans and those who didn't -- can know at this point what kind of shape Obama will be in when 2012 rolls around. Their prospects will be determined significantly by what happens in November.
But the absence of 2012 buzz in New Orleans underscores the singular focus for a party eager to return to power. There is also a recognition that any perceived failures in November could make 2012 even more difficult.
Clarke Reed, who served for years as the RNC member from Mississippi and who founded the Southern Republican Leadership Conference 40 years ago, said the meeting this weekend has restored the group to its original purpose. Four years ago, he said, the organization got infatuated with presidential politics and straw polls.
Now, he said, "It's back to the grass roots."
That's why 2012 can wait.