Everything has to start somewhere, so the quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination more or less began at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington -- not that it's easy to take seriously any presidential nomination straw poll that Ron Paul wins. The Republican representative from Texas has a fanatically loyal cadre of supporters, and he can pack a straw poll or jam the Web and call-in shows with backers, but when it comes to actually winning statewide caucuses and primaries, he's all hat and no cattle. Still, the conservatives' event, which was packed with students and the farthest-right elements of the GOP, is where the nomination process began this year. The first serious Republican cattle show will be in New Orleans when the Southern Republican Leadership Conference gathers from April 8 to 11. The meeting is a reprise of the same event held in Memphis in 2006 that brought together more than 2,000 party activists from 37 states.
Although these events aren't necessarily good predictors of who will win the nomination, they do serve as a useful way for potential candidates to test their themes on a broad array of GOP activists and for the embryonic campaigns to test their organizational abilities. The events are also useful for party leaders, not to mention reporters, in gauging the appeal of possible contenders at the outset of a contest; observers can check hopefuls' progress, or lack of progress, with a gigantic focus group long before the campaigns home in on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other early-battleground states.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's win at the 2006 Memphis event (in his home state) wasn't exactly a shocker, but then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's strong second-place finish was an early sign that he would be a force in the 2008 primaries. In a foreshadowing of later problems, John McCain's campaign sensed a possible underperformance and did not want to risk its candidate's front-runner status with a potentially embarrassing showing in Memphis, so it urged his backers to write in President Bush's name and to demonstrate their support for the president and the Iraq war. In an organizational wake-up call, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee from neighboring Arkansas performed dismally in the straw poll, a setback that he took to heart. A much better organizational effort in the Iowa caucuses gave him a victory there and put him into the final three for the GOP nomination in 2008.
Romney, who began his 19-state book tour this past week, is apparently skipping the New Orleans weekend. It seems that no one told the notoriously party-averse guy that the event coincided with the April 9-11 French Quarter Festival and its "world's largest jazz brunch." Confirmed speakers include Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence; and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
The recent National Governors Association conference in Washington sparked increased talk that Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels have more than a passing interest in the 2012 contest. Barbour, who took over as chairman of the Republican Governors Association earlier last year, has been elevating his national profile. He and the RGA received a big boost last November when the GOP scored takeover victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests.
Daniels's refusal to shut the door on a run was interesting. On the one hand, he indicated to National Journal reporters and editors that he was not setting up a political action committee or other pre-campaign apparatus and would not be making the forays into early states that others were. Yet he did say that he wants to be a part of the 2012 conversation, particularly the discussion of the party's direction, and he did add that he would not rule out a potential race.
Although all Republican presidential contenders speak in reverential tones about President Reagan, both Barbour and Daniels served on the Reagan White House staff -- Daniels had already put in two years as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, while Barbour went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Suffice it to say that this isn't the first rodeo for either one, and both are exceedingly well versed in national politics.
This article appears in the March 6, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.