NEW ORLEANS (AP) -The spotlight at the three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference turned Friday to the 2008 vice presidential nominee.
The former Alaska governor is among the potential GOP contenders to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012 addressing the gathering of a few thousand Republican activists in Louisiana.
At least four possible candidates passed up the event, choosing instead to do their political leg work elsewhere.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who many party insiders consider the front-runner after his failed 2008 candidacy, was in the midst of a book tour. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was on John McCain's 2008 vice presidential short list, was addressing the activists by video so he could welcome home returning troops. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, was focused on his cable news show. And Sen. John Thune, a rising Republican star, was attending to his South Dakota constituents.
It's not unusual for politicians eyeing the presidency to gather this early. Potential candidates usually use such forums to gauge their clout years before a presidential race. And the perpetual campaign is normal in modern presidential politics.
The goal isn't to court voters, as few are paying attention this early.
Rather, these Republicans are trying to create buzz and draw media coverage, as well as attract donors and top political talent as they lay the groundwork to take on Obama.
On Thursday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama was "the most radical president in American history."
Gingrich reminded conservative activists why he was one of the nation's most polarizing leaders in the 1990s, opening the conference with a biting assessment of Obama.
"The most radical president in American history has now thrown down the gauntlet to the American people: 'I run a machine. I own Washington and there's nothing you can do about it,'" Gingrich said. He urged his fellow Republicans to stop what he called Obama's "secular, socialist machine."
Highly charged words, for sure. But that's standard fare at this GOP gathering.
Gingrich has not declared his intentions for 2012, but his appearances in New Orleans had all the trappings of a fledging presidential campaign, from an intimate meeting with tea party activists - his staff photographer took grip-and-grin pictures of Gingrich posing with every activist - to his wade-through-the-crowd entrance at the conference, with the thumping beat of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" drawing the crowd to its feet.
He maintained that Obama's policies - particularly health care and economic stimulus legislation - have put the United States on the road to socialism.
Gingrich offered Republicans an antidote to Democratic accusations that GOP leaders do little more than oppose policies - the so-called "Party of No." He said Republicans should underscore the policies they favor - tax cuts, a lower deficit, fewer regulations and a sensible energy plan.
"The point is there are many things we can say yes to," Gingrich said.
Will he say yes to a presidential campaign?
"That will be up to God," he said, "and the American people."