Sarah Palin's coming to town. So are Newt Gingrich, Michael Steele and many of the leading GOP lights — rising stars, establishment heroes and ambitious newcomers. From April 8 through 11, New Orleans is hosting the quadrennial Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC), an event the SRLC says will be "three days of training, briefings, receptions and speeches from the leaders of the Republican Party" and "the most prominent Republican event outside of a Republican National Convention."
"It's a big deal," says Quin Hillyer, senior editor of the Washington D.C.-based magazine American Spectator. "It's a fount and exchange of ideas. It's not that a lot of power shifts happen there — but it's where a lot of people start to get a sense of who's up and who's down in the Republican Party in the South."
Certainly the speakers' list is a GOP Who's Who of the moment, starting with former Alaska governor and current Fox News analyst Palin, who will speak on Friday, April 9. Chris Cilizza of The Washington Post says Palin's appearance at the SRLC "transforms that event into the first legitimate cattle call of the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes."
Gov. Bobby Jindal also will speak, along with governors from two neighboring states: Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Rick Perry of Texas. Former Louisiana state Rep. Tony Perkins, now head of the D.C.-based Family Research Council, is on the docket, as are several familiar cable news commentators: foreign policy analyst Liz Cheney, political analyst Mary Matalin, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele will be there; conservative Web guru Andrew Breitbart (a Tulane alum) will be on hand; and Sean Hannity will have a book signing and will broadcast his Fox News show, Hannity's America, from the conference floor.
Last but not least, former Texas Congressman Ron Paul will deliver an address. Paul is the presidential candidate whose tack toward libertarianism and strict constitutionalism has won him fervent fans — and withering detractors — among traditional Republicans.
Combine that with a closely watched straw poll of potential 2012 candidates, and you've got yourself a potent mix, a GOP popularity contest that Sen. Lamar Alexander once compared to "prize hogs at a state fair."
Roger Villere Jr., state chairman of the Louisiana GOP and recently announced candidate for lieutenant governor, says he expects this year's SRLC to be the biggest yet, with attendees and honored guests coming from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. According to a real-time leaderboard on the SRLC Web site, the majority of attendees are coming from Louisiana, followed by Mississippi and Texas. "We have not hosted [the SRLC] since 1987," Villere says. "We wanted people to see Louisiana and the New Orleans area. So we put together a bid and did a lot of lobbying ahead of time."
Louisiana also will be well represented on the dais, with major speeches by Jindal, Perkins and Matalin — but two Louisianan names are conspicuously absent from the SRLC Web site: Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, who infuriated conservatives in November when he was the only Republican to vote for President Barack Obama's health care reform initiative, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who was among the opening speakers at the 2006 SRLC in Memphis, Tenn. An early draft agenda from the SRLC had Vitter scheduled to speak on Saturday, but his name disappeared from the master schedule by mid-March, only to reappear the week before the conference.
Cao spokesman Taylor Henry told Gambit last week the congressman would indeed speak on April 10, as well as give an invocation. Vitter spokesman Joel DiGradi did not return calls about the gathering.
For such a high-powered, media-savvy event, turnout for Southern Republican Leadership Conferences is traditionally small — by design. The March 2006 SRLC drew 2,000 people to Memphis, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Villere, who says the 2010 event will be the largest ever, is predicting a New Orleans turnout of 3,000. Even so, when Palin speaks on Friday afternoon, it's possible that more people will be in Jackson Square listening to the Dukes of Dixieland at the annual French Quarter Festival.
Media coverage, however, should be global. According to Villere, more than 100 outlets, including all the major broadcast and cable news networks, are scheduled to cover the event. For that reason alone, the impact of the SRLC is not to be underestimated, at least when it comes to shaping perceptions as to who's on the rise in the GOP — and who's not.
Then again, sometimes the SRLC lives up to its name — it's a Southern thing. That may explain, at least partly, why Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a scheduled speaker, dropped out abruptly on March 24 (his spokesman told the Associated Press the governor had decided to go to a ceremony honoring Iraq veterans instead), followed by another Northerner, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, who dropped out on March 25, citing book promotion commitments. (Palin is certainly the most geographic Northerner on the agenda, but Hillyer says, "Sarah Palin is often accepted by rural Southerners by adoption."
This year, one of the biggest SRLC draws seems to be Paul, the dark horse 2008 presidential candidate who upended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February when he trounced Romney in the straw poll. Paul's victory was controversial because of his strict constitutionalist beliefs, which don't always jibe with the family-values wing of the GOP. Indeed, this year schisms seem to be developing between traditional Republicans and their sometimes-uneasy allies — Libertarians and voters allied with the Tea Party movement.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a pastor-turned-Fox-News-host, skipped CPAC, saying, "CPAC has become increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years, one of the reasons I didn't go this year." Another CPAC-skipper was Palin, who bypassed it in favor of the Feb. 6 Tea Party Convention. Palin's detractors said it came down to money (CPAC didn't pay, while the Tea Party offered a $100,000 honorarium for a 40-minute speech), but her fans saw it as another demonstration of Palin's willingness to bypass the D.C. establishment and speak directly to the grass roots.
Palin will not receive a speaker's fee for her New Orleans appearance, but it's certain to boost her profile — and sales of her memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life. Another speaker with a book to promote is Jindal. The Louisiana governor will take the dais Friday afternoon in a slot very near Palin's, just three months before publication of his memoir, On Solid Ground: Returning to America's Core Values. It's also a way for Jindal to reintroduce himself to the nation after his flat performance in the 2009 GOP response to President Barack Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress. Jindal continues to insist he has no political plans beyond the governor's mansion — a claim nobody in Louisiana politics believes.
Meanwhile, Paul and his fans seem to be preparing for another end-run straw-poll victory at the SRLC. Earlier this month, the Web site of his group Campaign for Liberty was "proud to announce a massively discounted rate on SRLC tickets for our supporters at $30 a ticket." Seems an anonymous donor bought a block of tickets for Paul fans. (VIP tickets to the SRLC are $700 apiece, while "partial access" tickets, allowing the bearer to watch most sessions elsewhere in the hotel via closed-circuit TV, are only $119. It wasn't clear which tickets were in the Paul bloc.)
Chad Rogers, publisher of the conservative Louisiana news aggregator Web site The Dead Pelican (www.thedeadpelican.com), is a fan who's coming just to hear Paul and meet him at a reception afterward. Rogers describes the Paul movement as "an interesting force in the Republican party. It kind of reminds me of the 'Draft Goldwater' movement. And they've both been described by the punditocracy to make them seem like kooks and wackos."
At the 2006 SRLC in Memphis, Arizona Sen. John McCain coaxed a laugh out of the audience by quoting a fellow Arizonan who was his ideological opposite — former Democratic U.S. Sen. Morris Udall. "He once said," McCain told the crowd, "that if you are a United States senator, unless you are under indictment or in detoxification, you automatically consider yourself a candidate for president."
McCain added, "Many in the media view this conference, at least in part, as a beauty contest for potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. ... Well, as you can see, I'm no beauty. I'm older than dirt and I have more scars than Frankenstein, but I've learned a few things along the way."
A straw poll held later that weekend indicated the crowd didn't buy McCain's pitch. He placed fifth, behind then-Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who took 37 percent of the vote, and Mitt Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, with 14 percent. Nevertheless, a year and a half later, Frist had retired and McCain was accepting the GOP nomination for president.
"It is more important to make a good impression [at the SRLC] than it is to win some dubious straw poll," Hillyer explains.
So, is the straw poll meaningless? Not quite. At the 1998 conference in Biloxi, Miss., where many attendees waved signs promoting former vice-president Dan Quayle, the straw poll picked a certain Southern governor as the person to beat in 2000.
The winner, George W. Bush, hadn't even bothered to attend.