Potential Palin Rivals Cede the Spotlight to the Superstar

If Sarah Palin, with her mega-wattage superstar status sucking up all the available oxygen in the room, is it worth sharing a stage and competing for some attention?

Between now and the first GOP nomination season debate a year from now, that will be the question asked over and over again by the smart political operatives plotting Tim Pawlenty's, Mitt Romney's, and other nonreality show starring Republicans' paths to the White House.

The cattle call season for the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls is upon us, but the media obsession with all things Palin and her knack for dominating a news cycle calls into question how valuable it is for various potential White House contenders to show up and play.

Every four years in the spring of the midterm election year, thousands of Republican activists gather in the South and size up the politicians seeking to lead the GOP charge into the future.

Two Big Names Opt Out

In New Orleans this year, the two most serious potential White House contenders who have already started putting the organizational pieces in motion for a likely run, former Gov. Mitt Romney and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, will be no shows.

Both of them have decent excuses, but the Southern Republican Leadership Conference takes place over three days and if either of them believed it was a must-do event, they probably could have found a way to be here.

"He's on a nationwide book tour that has him speaking to audiences and signing books this week in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Minnesota," said Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

Aides to Romney have indicated that they are not likely to schedule the once and likely presidential contender to partake in these large cattle call events with all that much regularity. He has already been through the circuit punching each of those holes on his dance card and his advisers believe they can be a bit more selective this time around.

Palin Dominates GOP Rivals

That is not necessarily the case for Pawlenty. Advisers to the Minnesota governor suggest that he would love to have been at SRLC this weekend. He is far less known, even to the Republican faithful, than Palin or Romney and needs exposure before these activists as possible.

But duty calls. Pawlenty cancelled his scheduled April 10 appearance in New Orleans in order to be home in Minnesota to welcome back U.S. troops returning home to Minnesota from their service in Iraq.

"Recognizing the troops is way more important than politics," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant.

Pawlenty will, instead, appear at the conference via video greeting.

If the news coverage takeaway from the weekend ends up being about something Palin wrote on the palm of her hand or if those attending the conference are really there to see Palin more than anything else, as was the case in Arizona a couple of weeks ago when she campaigned with John McCain, it might make a lot of sense for Romney and Pawlenty to shop their wares elsewhere.

Prime Audience for Palin

For the political party that already has the South pretty much locked up electorally, this quadrennial gathering is clearly not about appealing to those coveted independent voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

Much like the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, this is a red-meat gathering where the speakers are preaching to the converted.

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