Two thousand Republicans from 38 states are descending on New Orleans to size up several of the GOP’s 2012 candidates for President.
Several announced, unannounced and rumored to be potential candidates will speak at the annual Republican Leadership Conference. They include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, businessman and former federal banker Herman Cain, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Conference Director Charlie Davis says the importance of the gathering, which ends with a straw poll on Saturday, cannot be underestimated. “This conference is more like a mini national convention. It brings together core GOP donors and key activists from around the country.”
But frontrunner Mitt Romney will not be here. He's sworn off straw polls and will not participate in this one despite the fact that he won it in 2010.
In Florida this morning the multi-millionaire candidate joked somewhat awkwardly that he's unemployed and looking for new work.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is another no-show. He took a campaign break Thursday in San Francisco to give a paid speech to a health insurance trade meeting. After that, he will attend the "Right on Line" convention of conservative bloggers and web activists taking place in his home state.
Newt Gingrich, who had several key staffers quit last week, complaining that he has not been campaigning enough, was the first to arrive at the RLC this morning. “This is a very important meeting because so many Republicans come together from across the whole South.”
But the early conference buzz is about Texas Governor Rick Perry, the longest serving governor in the nation, who is expected to give a stem-winding speech on Saturday, after the results of the straw poll are announced. He has been left off the ballot because he has not made an official announcement regarding his decision about a possible presidential run.
For Michele Bachmann, who has been rising in the polls since her breakout performance at Monday’s New Hampshire debate, a strong showing here could translate into big dollars. She’s now working on a book, and plans to formally announce her candidacy in her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa in the next two weeks.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will miss the GOP conference in the Big Easy due to illness. He will announce his candidacy Tuesday in New York and New Hampshire.
Fox News Producer Kelly David Burke contributed to this report.