Presidential Hopefuls Fly South to Woo Party Faithful

The Republican Leadership Conference, formally known as the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, is underway in New Orleans and several Republican presidential hopefuls are making time in their schedules to appeal to southern conservatives.

The straw poll conducted during the conference is nowhere close to being scientific. However, it does provide candidates a source of bragging rights if they win or place well.

Conference Director Charlie Davis says the final day’s straw poll is extremely important. “This conference is more like a mini national convention. It brings together core GOP donors and key activists from around the country,” Davis told Fox News.

Presidential hopefuls Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Speaker of the House and Georgia native Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and are all scheduled to speak at the conference.

Others said to be attending are former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain and home state host Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, an up and coming leader in Republican politics.

Of those attending this year’s gathering, attention is also being given to those who are absent, notably perceived frontrunner and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, although key supporters and campaign staff will be mingling with the crowd gauging interest and campaigning on behalf of their candidate.

“We’re very excited to have so many conservative candidates, elected officials and thinkers with us in the New Orleans,” said Aaron Baer, a spokesman for the Louisiana GOP told The Daily Caller. “The RLC should give our party an excellent opportunity to showcase both current and future stars of the conservative movement.”

Attendees will be particularly interested in hearing Texas Governor Rick Perry’s speech, anticipating a hint as to his plans to enter an already crowded Republican primary field. On the other hand, Romney’s absence will make him an easy target for his challengers to make headway with southern party loyalists.

Last week, several top staffers left the Gingrich campaign and have ended up on the Perry team, leaving insiders to wonder if Gingrich is simply looking for a way to gracefully exit in the coming weeks. Gingrich has been lagging in the polls and if he cannot resuscitate his campaign in New Orleans, he will face a bigger challenge when he returns to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Gingrich’s 41-minute speech Thursday evening was classic Newt, taking on Obama’s economic policies, the media and activist judges and speaking to the soul of Republican intellects hanging onto his every word.

“Newt is certainly in his element here,” said Keith Simpson, a conference attendee.

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman was scheduled to be in New Orleans but canceled due to illness.