NEW ORLEANS — Southern Republicans wrapped up a three-day meeting in New Orleans Saturday unified in fervent opposition to President Barack Obama, but wide open at this early stage about whom they want to challenge him in 2012.
Party activists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference cheered potential presidential candidates such as Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, as well as absentee Mitt Romney.
But they also readily volunteered objections to the same names: Gingrich has personal baggage, Palin's too inexperienced, Romney pushed Obama-like health care while governor of Massachusetts and Pawlenty lacks charisma.
Given those commonly heard objections among rank-and-file party workers, it appears that no potential Republican candidate can yet claim to be the heir apparent and the race could be wide open.
Take Palin, the former Alaska governor who headlined the recent convention of tea party activists.
She gave an impassioned speech to the Republicans, denouncing Obama's foreign policy and domestic agenda, particularly his energy policies. She favors more oil and gas drilling along U.S. coasts. She's said she may run.
"I'm for Palin," said Vance Martin, a Republican volunteer from Oklahoma City. "She has authenticity; she's a strong constitutionalist, and a fighter. She takes a hit and keeps on going."
Others also said they liked her, but said her work as a small town mayor and her half-term as governor were not enough experience to lead the party's charge against Obama, even if he also had scant experience before winning the presidency.
"She's great. But she lacks the experience," said Elmer Flucht of Maumelle, Arkansas, in a comment heard several times Saturday. "She's a heck of a lot better than the clown that's in there now, but she needs more experience."
"A great rah-rah gal," said Bonnie Re of Boca Raton, Florida. "But I don't think she's presidential. She's not worldly. She doesn't have a business sense. She needs more vetting, more experience."
Romney also had fans and detractors.
"He's a true statesman," said Re. "He's a brilliant businessman. Our country needs a businessman, especially right now."
But Romney in one way has the opposite problem as Palin — too much experience in his one term as governor, particularly his experience enacting a health care plan with a mandate that people get insurance that some Republicans find uncomfortably similar to the Obama plan they hate.
"He really hurt himself with the health care," said Flucht's wife, Mozella.
Martin of Oklahoma City had this critique of Romney: "He has a very clear grasp of economic issues. If we were the nominee, I'd support him. But I don't think he can win the nomination because of health care. He's the one who first pushed it in Massachusetts. That will be an albatross around his neck."
Romney did not appear at the gathering, saying a book tour kept him away.
Gingrich, the former House Speaker, used his speech to tear into Obama as the leader of "a secular, socialist machine." He said he'd decide next year whether to run.
"I hope he does run," said Elmer Flucht. "He's so knowledgeable. He has great experience. He has the ability to articulate them. He makes a lot of sense."
Several attendees lauded Gingrich for his intellect and his skills as a speaker. But several also questioned whether he could win.
"I like everything he says. He made a lot of good points we can use to elect candidates," said Judy Smith of Montgomery, Texas. "But Newt can't win. He has a lot of baggage. The way he left his first wife. Then the way he left the second wife."
Pawlenty, the second term governor of Minnesota, did not attend the conference, but spoke via videotape. Said Smith: "He doesn't have the charisma."
As attendees lined up to vote in the conference straw poll, one possible presidential candidate urged the party not to pay any attention to that contest until after the 2010 Congressional elections, which he said required their focus.
"I hope no one here spends one whiff thinking about the 2012 election," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "Don't get distracted by 2012....Don't take your eye off the ball."
Barbour also urged the conservatives not to tear themselves apart between tea party activists and Republicans.
"We cannot let ourselves be torn apart by the idea of purity," he said.
The results of the straw poll: Romney, 24 percent with 439 votes; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 24 percent with 438 votes; Palin, 18 percent with 330 votes; Gingrich, 18 percent with 321 votes; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 4 percent; Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, 3 percent each, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, 2 percent; and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, 1 percent.
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