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Grand Old Party City 

  It's never too early to start jostling for the 2012 presidential election, and there'll be plenty of that when New Orleans hosts the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC), a quadrennial gathering of conservatives from 14 Southern states that's seen as a warm-up of the next presidential election. The conference will be held April 8-11 at the New Orleans Riverside Hilton. The gathering, which features speakers, breakout sessions and a straw poll, has already confirmed the attendance of leading GOP luminaries, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Alaska Governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (who will deliver the keynote address), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence (chair of the House Republican Conference), Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Family Research Council president and former Louisiana state legislator Tony Perkins, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The list of those invited but not yet confirmed includes radio host Rush Limbaugh, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and FOX News commentator Sean Hannity.

  Among the most eagerly watched moments at the SRLC is the group's presidential straw poll, which in the past has not always been the most reliable bellwether. In 1998, George W. Bush won the straw poll and went on to be elected in 2000; in 2006, the choice of the SRLC was Bill Frist, the now-retired Senate majority leader who did not run for president.

  Roger Villere Jr., chair of the Louisiana GOP, predicts the event will be a sellout with at least 2,700 in attendance. VIP registration packages (without hotel) are $600. — Allman & Allen Johnson Jr.

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