April 8, 2010 -- 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.
Both Pawlenty and Romney addressed CPAC earlier this year in Washington, D.C., and Palin was noticeably absent from the program.
Palin arrives in New Orleans having spent significant time on the 2010 campaign trail in the last few weeks and delving further into directing her faithful to particular candidates she believes are worthy of their support.
This weekend will provide Palin with a high-profile opportunity to set forth the key components of her election year message to what is already a clearly enthused Republican base.
GOP Chairman Michael Steele Gets Southern Test
Four years ago at this gathering, Republican leaders struggled with how much to embrace a decreasingly popular President Bush and how much to distinguish themselves from him. It was a theme that permeated through much of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2007 and 2008 as candidates needed to woo a GOP base still supporting Bush without alienating an American electorate at large that had already rejected him.
This year, one key rhetorical challenge for Republicans will be finding the balance between the enthused and angry wall of opposition to all things Obama and the desire to offer some positive and prescriptive alternatives of their own.
In addition to the potential presidential hopefuls, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele will be making his first public speech at SRLC since his chairmanship has been engulfed in controversy and disarray over the committee's spending practices and discipline.
Whether or not he is embraced and bucked up with support or is met with wariness among the activists will be on display for all to see at a time when Republicans are looking at their most advantageous electoral landscape in more than five years.
Other speakers expected to address the SRLC in New Orleans include: Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, Rick Perry, Haley Barbour, and Ron Paul.