NEW ORLEANS -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, called Barack Obama on Thursday "the most radical president in American history" who oversees a "secular, socialist machine."

Gingrich reminded conservative activists why he was one of the nation's most polarizing leaders in the 1990s, opening the Southern Republican Leadership Conference with a biting assessment of Obama's policies.

"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 the three-day GOP gathering that is drawing several presidential hopefuls. Friday's headliner is former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

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 GOP conference, with the thumping beat of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" drawing the crowd to its feet.

He said Obama's policies -- particularly health care and economic stimulus legislation -- have put the United States on the road to socialism. The former speaker did not specifically explain why he thought Obama is a secularist, though he did say the GOP wasn't afraid of recognizing faith's role in American society.

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 -- yes on 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."

The spotlight at the conference turns Friday to 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The former Alaska governor is among the potential GOP contenders to challenge 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.