NEW ORLEANS — There’s no Romney, no Huckabee and no Pawlenty. Indeed, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, which begins today, is missing plenty of the key cogs of a so-called presidential cattle call.
But that just opens the doors to the others.
Just like four years ago, when a former governor of Massachusetts made a splash by finishing second in the straw poll, the conference provides a real chance for some lesser-known potential 2012 hopefuls to assert themselves.
Sarah Palin will be headlining and Michael Steele will no doubt be a hot issue. But the conference should be especially important presidential toe-dipping time for a trio of local governors — Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, and Texas’s Rick Perry — even someone like Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) or former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Much like with Romney in 2006, this weekend is an audition for any or all of them. Though Palin and Steele will suck up much of the oxygen in the room, there’s plenty left for a dark horse.
Here’s who to watch and what they have to prove:

Jindal – Holding the conference in his home state will afford the Louisiana governor a second chance at harnessing the national spotlight. His first try last year didn’t go so well, with his response to the president’s address to Congress incessantly compared to Kenneth the Page from the TV show “30 Rock.” Jindal is still regarded as a future star of the party, and whether or not he has designs on 2012 or 2016, his status as an up-and-coming governor will be on trial this weekend.
Jindal’s situation is compromised by the fact that he would be up for reelection in 2011, making it virtually impossible for him to run for reelection and for president in 2012. That makes it less likely he’d run this time around, but it also means he’s got to make his decision early. In that way, this weekend will be a good gauge for him.
Barbour – The Mississippi governor is the man that many GOP operatives would love to see run for president. And just as quickly, most dismiss his chances of actually winning. It’s historically a tough calculus as a southern governor, and Barbour — who recently and unapologetically declared himself a “fat redneck” — is more aware of that than most anyone else.
But if the country can elect a black man, Barbour has to wonder whether it could also elect a fat redneck. And he’s good on the stump, which could make him a real attraction this weekend. Barbour is basically on his own turf, and expectations should be high. But don’t be surprised if he comes out of the weekend with some renewed buzz around his name.
Perry — The Texas governor has some much more immediate concerns, with Democrats feeling good about their chances of taking him down this November in his reelection race. But after a huge primary win over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in March, there’s been a growing amount of presidential speculation around Perry’s name.
Even as his primary was closely watched, though, Perry has seldom been placed in the company of other potential presidential hopefuls. Now that the label has been slapped on his back, he’s going to face a different set of expectations. This weekend’s conference will be his first big foray into something he won’t dare talk about — his plans for after this year’s reelection race.
Pence — Much like Perry, Pence is the subject of increasing 2012 rumors. The House Republican Conference chairman turned down a Senate run recently and now appears to be acting on his national aspirations. Fiscal conservatives and true believers love him, and he could have a nice niche in the presidential field with all the talk about bailouts and big government. But even plenty of activists don’t know who he is yet.
Santorum — Though a favorite of social conservatives, Santorum’s potential presidential hopes are dismissed by many observers. A lot of it has to do with his landslide loss to Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDem senator: Inaction on gun control sending 'unintentional endorsement' Congress has a chance to make saving for college a lot easier Sen. Manchin won’t vote for Trump’s mine safety nominee MORE (D-Pa.) in his 2006 reelection campaign. But Santorum’s fire-breathing conservatism could play to the crowd in New Orleans.
If nothing else, a party longing to get in touch with its conservative base could migrate toward Santorum — not necessarily to him, but toward him. And there are always other opportunities, like the Republican National Committee chairmanship. We’ve heard they’re looking for someone new.