NEW ORLEANS -- Last weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference presented a pair of contrasts.
Though the city has been coming back economically since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl win gave the city a huge psychological shot in the arm, and the impending departure of the much and appropriately maligned Mayor Ray Nagin can't seem to happen soon enough to suit the city's residents. Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu hasn't been sworn into office yet, but one can't help but get the feeling when talking to residents that they have turned the corner emotionally.
Though the SRLC technically covered a 16-state footprint, reports said Republicans from 41 states gathered at the event. Attendees were largely state and local activists gathered for a party pep rally and a taste of 2012 politicking. And compared with the previous SRLC, held in Memphis in March 2006, the Republicans' mindset couldn't have been more different.
No single Republican presidential contender commanded immediate attention. Republicans seem to be perfectly willing to let that stuff wait until after November.
The Democratic wave had not hit at the time of that gathering four years ago, nor was it even apparent. But President George W. Bush's job approval numbers were at 36 percent, and it was pretty obvious things weren't going well for the GOP -- and they knew it.
But this past weekend, Republicans were energized and ready to storm the ramparts. And interestingly, they seemed to be unusually focused on the midterm elections. Often at such functions, many party activists pay perfunctory attention to the midterm but, like politicians looking past whomever they are shaking hands with, their minds are on someone else. Not this year. November commanded nearly full attention, establishing the importance in their minds of scoring big gains and containing Democratic power.
It also seems to say something that no single Republican presidential contender commanded immediate attention. Republicans seem to be perfectly willing to let that stuff wait until after November.
The straw poll conducted during the event seemed almost an afterthought; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney prevailed over Rep. Ron Paul of Texas by a single vote, 439-438. Romney didn't come, but he sent plenty of backers. Indeed, Saturday he was appearing in Minnesota with another potential Republican contender. Gov. Tim Pawlenty remained in his state to greet a large contingent of Minnesota National Guard troops returning from Iraq.
Three speakers commanded the most attention: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Gingrich, who is clearly eyeing a 2012 bid, carries more baggage than a Mayflower moving van. But his speech, as most of his do, displayed a very smart guy who has been a sharp-eyed student of Republican politics and voters for over 30 years. He is someone who thinks big thoughts and communicates them exceedingly well, and he knows exactly how to stroke every erogenous zone in the Republican body politic.
His baggage might keep him out of the race or limit his ability to win the nomination, but watching him in action leaves a strong impression he has as much raw ability and political instincts as the rest of the field combined.
Sure, he delivers the gratuitous applause lines like every good politician, but Gingrich wants to appeal to the minds, not just the hearts, of Republicans.
Palin is catnip for the Republican base. Watching her flirt and tease with GOP audiences leaves the impression that she uses her femininity much the same way California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does his masculinity.
Palin doesn't compete with Gingrich for the minds of GOP voters, but she sure goes after their hearts -- and she does it with a sassiness that is fun for even those who don't like her. She is good at what she does and is underestimated by too many. In terms of political correctness, she seems to revel in being just a little bit naughty, delighting the crowd by correcting herself after using the word "shoot" and having her PAC pass out Alaskan reindeer jerky.
Though it's more likely Barbour will stay on the sidelines in the 2012 presidential race, he, like Gingrich, has studied what makes Republican voters and activists tick for a very long time.
Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, played the role of adult here, giving the gathered party activists some advice they needed to hear. Noting that he couldn't win an election in Vermont, Barbour urged attendees to be mindful that it takes a broad-based party to win in all 50 states. And he warned them about demanding ideological purity, reminding them of the dictum of his "old boss" Ronald Reagan, who said that someone who votes with you 80 percent of the time is not a 20 percent traitor.