A parade of long-shot candidates was warmly received by thousands of GOP activists meeting here for the Republican Leadership Conference, an annual gathering that this year turned out to be more of a pep rally than a testing ground for potential presidents.

For all the affection and accolades that greeted the candidates’ red-meat rhetoric, it was clear that the rank-and-file is already turning its focus to the more practical question on the horizon: Who among the field has the best chance of beating Barack Obama next year?

Indeed, it was telling that some of the leading contenders skipped this year’s event, previously known as the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumed frontrunner, was raising money in Nevada. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was doing the same, two blocks away from Romney.

Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China who is expected to announce his candidacy next week, begged out of his speaking spot, saying he was suffering a cold. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is weighing a potential bid, will speak on Saturday.

None of that seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the Republicans who were here.

Brian Avenel, a private investigator from Mandeville, La., has attended many of these events in the past. He recalled how former Alaska governor Sarah Palin last year “brought the roof down.” This year, the message of former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain resonated with Avenel.

But ultimately, he said, his choice will come down to one criterion: “I want the best candidate to beat Obama.”

That was also the message the delegates were hearing from the stage.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who earlier this year was considering making a presidential bid himself, had been an early organizer of this gathering, back in 1969. Having opted out of the race, he was back in the role of one of the party’s elder statesmen.

“Next year’s election will be about Barack Obama’s record. And if it is, we’ll have a new Republican president. So we need to stay focused on that,” Barbour said.

But he acknowledged the tensions and divisions that have pulled at the party, especially with the rise of the tea party movement.

Barbour also tacitly addressed the concerns that many Republicans have about the candidates who are running — such as the fact that Romney’s record in Massachusetts includes passing a health-care plan that became a model for the new national law that Republicans call “Obamacare.”

When the party picks its nominee, “I can tell you you’re not going to agree with him or her on every issue. Don’t get hung up on purity,” Barbour said. “In politics, purity is a loser.”

One woman in the audience shouted: “Amen!”

Still, that day is many months away. And until then, the activists are enjoying playing the field.

Even though many have written off former House speaker Newt Gingrich after the exodus of much of his campaign staff, he was warmly received Thursday night.

But the reaction to Gingrich was not as enthusiastic as the reception Friday that greeted Cain, an African American who has never held elective office and who paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he talked about the improbability of his quest.

“I have a dream. In fact, I have two dreams. The first dream that I have is in November 2012, conservative Republicans are going to take back the House and the Senate,” Cain said. “I’ve got another dream for 2012, and that dream is you are looking at the next president of the United States.”

Ron Paul, a libertarian congressman from Texas, was greeted — as he is almost everywhere — by a large contingent of young, rowdy supporters. But there was an almost elegiac quality to the conclusion of his presentation, in which he seemed to concede that his campaign has little chance of succeeding.

“No long faces,” Paul said as he spoke of the role that he and his supporters have had in shaping the overall debate.

“I would like to think I’ve contributed a little bit,” Paul said. “All of a sudden I noticed others who happen to be running for leadership are starting to use our language.”

As Paul left the stage, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the most conservative voices in the Senate, told him: “I used to think you were crazy, Ron, but I’m starting to feel a little crazy myself.”

The delegates were somewhat more subdued — but intensely attentive — in reaction to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a tea party favorite who had surprised many with her strong performance in Monday’s presidential debate in New Hampshire.

She portrayed herself as a candidate who could bring together the disparate elements of the party by advocating a strong foreign policy, fiscal discipline and conservative social values. And Bachmann predicted that the tea party will exercise more influence next year.

“We need the tea party movement,” Bachmann said. “That movement has more steam and more power and more energy today than it had last year, in November 2010. Get ready, 2012. The tea party will be bigger than ever.”

Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this report.