NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Mitt Romney is not here. Tim Pawlenty is otherwise engaged, in San Francisco and Minneapolis. Jon Huntsman is under the weather; his surrogate, his wife, canceled her speech.
The Republican Leadership Conference, once a required stop for GOP presidential hopefuls in search of support from critical southern states, has instead become the domain of second-tier candidates and those still considering jumping in the race. The 2,000 attendees from 38 states rose again and again to applaud the likes of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, but they didn't see a single candidate who might be considered in the top tier.
Organizers in New Orleans are hardly alone. The front-running Republican candidates have signaled they will not attend several other prominent gatherings of conservative activists. Romney and Huntsman will avoid the Iowa straw poll in Ames in August. Romney has said he will not participate in Presidency V, a major event in Florida in September.
That's a stark contrast from four years ago, when any gathering of conservative activists attracted a steady stream of kowtowing contenders. In 2007, virtually the entire GOP field attended at least 10 of these cattle calls, from the Conservative Political Action Conference in March to the Values Voters Summit in October. Along the way, John McCain, Mitt Romney and the rest of the crowd stopped in Iowa, South Carolina, California, Minneapolis, Orlando and Mackinac Island, Mich.
Now, the leading candidates are doing everything possible to avoid the appearance that they care about the results of the ubiquitous presidential straw polls, including skipping the events altogether. The proliferation of required stops on the campaign trail has finally become too big a burden for campaigns to bear; instead, they can make more of an impact by pursuing their own schedule.
"The straw polls are becoming quite expensive and well in excess of any potential benefits," said Frank Donatelli, the chairman of GOPAC and a top advisor to McCain's 2008 campaign. "The web and social networking allows candidates to build their own network independent from party activists."
In fact, the disinterest in participating in straw polls coincides with the rise of a candidate who dominates the field. In New Orleans this week, no candidate attracted a bigger crowd than Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman.
Paul's legions of fans, much younger than the rest of the crowd and much less burdened by sport coats and slacks, began arriving during Cain's address, booing the Atlanta businessman when he declared his support for Israel. They brought in signs, chanted for the end of the Federal Reserve and interrupted their hero constantly with thunderous applause. And, though they stayed for barely an hour, before leaving they gave Paul enough votes to win the straw poll.
Huntsman and Bachmann -- an undeclared candidate and a three-term congresswoman who has never held a leadership position within her Conference -- finished in second and third place. Cain, a businessman who has never held elected office, finished fourth, while Romney took just under 5 percent of the vote.
So it's little wonder that Romney, the undisputed front-runner, has said he will not participate in this year's straw polls. Any presidential campaign is made up, in no small part, of risk aversion. If Romney, or others, actively participate in straw polls and lose, they risk raising questions about their standing.
"Why spend a ton of money and resources on something that, ultimately, isn't going to make a bit of a difference in getting the nomination," asked one Republican strategist who will work for a presidential campaign this year.
Increasingly, front-running campaigns cannot find a justifiable answer to that question.
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