By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 4/9/2010 12:45:53 PM ET 2010-04-09T16:45:53

Like it or not, the 2012 presidential race is already underway.

Thousands of Republicans are gathering in New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a three-day event that's the GOP presidential nomination's equivalent of the annual NFL Scouting Combine for aspiring draft picks.

The lineup includes prominent Republican VIPs who might run for president, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And political observers will be looking for clues about the nascent battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Four years ago in Memphis, Tenn., Mitt Romney made a splash at the event, coming out of nowhere to finish a surprising second at the conference’s straw poll. The strong showing was an early indication that the Massachusetts governor would be a player in the 2008 presidential contest.

(The conference, however, isn't always a reliable predictor of the eventual GOP presidential nominee. The winner of the 2006 straw poll was former Republican Senate leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who never ran for president. Another closely watched Republican who spoke at the event — former Virginia Sen. George Allen — ended up losing his seat later that year.)

But even if its top performers don't always go on to the GOP nomination, the SRLC serves as the first real opportunity for party leaders, prominent donors and the political press corps to size up the early field.

“It's a chance to see the candidates in front of a group of key party leaders from a big chunk of the country,” said political analyst Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan "Cook Political Report."

“Who is stiff? Who seems to strike a responsive chord?”

The speaking line-up and straw poll
The three-day conference kicked off Thursday night with speeches by Gingrich, GOP commentator Mary Matalin and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s increasingly outspoken daughter, Liz.

On Friday afternoon, Palin speaks — followed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Perry of Texas and former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts.

And on Saturday, speakers include Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Texas Rep. (and 2008 presidential candidate) Ron Paul, and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

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Presidential hopefuls Romney — who made that splash at the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference — and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty won’t be in attendance.

Romney is still on tour to promote his new book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

Pawlenty pulled out of the event to attend a welcome-home ceremony for members of the Minnesota National Guard who are returning from Iraq, but he will address the GOP conference via video.

On Saturday night, conference organizers will release the results of its presidential-preference straw poll, which is open to any of the 3,500 Republicans — from 38 different states — who have paid to be in attendance.

In 2006, some of the fledgling campaigns paid to transport their supporters to help their would-be presidential candidates in the straw poll.

“Presidential campaigns are organizational exercises,” said Republican strategist Alex Vogel, who worked for Frist in 2006. If you can’t organize to get your supporters to vote in the straw poll, he added, then it raises questions about your organizational skills.

Palin, Steele in the spotlight
The big draw at this week's conference will be Palin, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2008. And if her past appearances — like her February speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville — are an indication, the Republican audience in New Orleans will eat up every word she delivers.

“How's that hopey-changey thing workin' out for you?” she asked at the Tea Party convention, ridiculing President Barack Obama's trademark campaign message.

GOP presidential hopefuls speaking at SRLC Still, many Republican political operatives aren't convinced that Palin will end up making a run for the White House in 2012.

“My own belief is that she is not running for president,” Vogel said. But he added that her status as a political icon fires up Republicans and conservatives.

“A little celebrity spicing things up doesn't hurt,” he said.

Another speaker who probably isn't running for president but who will receive plenty of attention at the conference is Steele, the embattled RNC chairman.

His Saturday speech will come after two weeks of tremendous scrutiny about the committee's $2,000 expenditure at a sex-themed club in Los Angeles, as well as other criticism of his tenure as chairman.

“I think it will be interesting to see how he is received,” noted one Republican political operative.

2006 vs. 2010
Perhaps the biggest difference between this week's conference and the one in Memphis four years ago is the attitude among Republicans.

In 2006, the Iraq war, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and George W. Bush's growing unpopularity were dragging down the Republican Party. Months later in the November midterms, the GOP lost its control of Congress. (It also isn't lost on some that this week's conference is taking place in the city that Katrina devastated in 2005.)

“2006 was about as bleak as it could get,” Vogel explained about the political mood among Republicans that year.

But now that the GOP is poised to make big gains in the upcoming midterms, he said, the party's mood is “borderline euphoric.”

Republican political consultant Phil Musser, who is advising Pawlenty, believes the conference's biggest takeaway will be the Republican enthusiasm about November.

“What is the gut intensity level? And what does that mean for the upcoming midterms?”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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