Let the 2012 race begin.
Little more than a year into President Barack Obama's first term, Republicans considering a challenge to the Democrat in his re-election bid were gauging their political strength at the first GOP candidate "cattle call" far from Washington — the three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Yet as Sarah Palin, Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich and several others gather in New Orleans, they face a stark reality: The Republican Party's task will be tough no matter who wins the GOP nomination.
Toppling Obama is all but certain to be difficult, judging by history. Only five times in the last century has an incumbent lost re-election. Still, giving Republicans hope in these polarized times, among those who lost re-election were two of the last five presidents — Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992.
And neither was as personally popular as Obama, who became a cultural phenomenon long before he was elected the nation's first black president.
Plus, the GOP has long-term institutional challenges; its ranks have shrunk and the South is the only region Republican nominee John McCain won in 2008.
Nevertheless, no less than a dozen Republicans are mulling over candidacies. It's a wide-open field with big personalities but little issue diversity. The hopefuls are encouraged by an increasing chorus of Republicans — led by former Vice President Dick Cheney — who argue that Obama could be a one-term president.
"What we're up against is unlike anything we've ever seen in America. This is a secular, socialist machine" and "they lie about both of them," Gingrich told tea party activists as he started to define his potential opponent. The former House speaker called Obama a more radical version of Carter, adding: "He's a pleasant guy, but he's a terrible president."
"Run, Newt, run," responded one man in the audience.
Among an increasing number of Republicans, the theory is that Obama is overreaching in his efforts to dramatically change the country's policies on everything from health care to climate change. Republicans predict that voters — particularly independents who decide elections and GOP loyalists who are energized against Obama — may ultimately reject his sweeping government policies in a nation that tilts more conservative than it does liberal.
Indeed, the 2008 candidate who ran from the Senate with a limited record now is the president who owns all of the country's successes and failures — and must defend his first-term actions.
Still, as president, Obama has something no Republican can match — the power of the White House bully pulpit.
To be sure, there are many unknowns this far out. There's no telling what the economy will look like in 2012. There's no telling whether terrorists will strike America between now and then.
No one knows the impact of the massive health care overhaul law Obama recently signed. And, perhaps most importantly, no one knows how the fickle American electorate will feel about their president, their country and their place in it.
And yet, several GOP politicians sense opportunity, with Obama's job performance rating hovering around 50 percent, independent voters tilting away from Democrats and the Republican base far more energized than it's been in years.
Amid that backdrop, a few thousand GOP activists streamed into New Orleans for the start of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
The event features speeches and schmoozing from veteran Republican leaders like Barbour, Mississippi's governor who once served as national GOP chairman, and Gingrich as well as GOP up-and-comers like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence. Some are seeking to raise their national profile, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and others are hoping for a political rebirth, like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Party rock star Palin may be the biggest draw.
Perhaps for that reason, at least four potential contenders weren't attending, choosing instead to do leg work for likely candidacies from elsewhere.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who many GOP 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 McCain's 2008 vice presidential short list, was addressing the activists by video so he could welcome home returning troops. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, was focused on his cable news show. And Sen. John Thune, a rising GOP 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 test their clout years before a presidential race. And the perpetual campaign is normal in modern presidential politics.
Courting voters isn't the goal; 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 ground work to take on Obama.
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