A weekend of conservative courtship

A cadre of GOP presidential candidates will be in New Orleans this weekend to make their pitch to the party’s base.

Eight Republican hopefuls and potential contenders will address the Republican Leadership Conference (RLC) — a three-day gathering of conservative activists.

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More than 2,000 delegates from 38 states will be on hand, giving the candidates a chance to sharpen their stump speech and distinguish themselves from the pack. The event includes a two-day straw poll, which could be a key test of how the party feels about its current crop of contenders.

A smaller group of Republican presidential hopefuls will also attend the RightOnline conference in Minneapolis, which began Thursday. RightOnline is a smaller event that brings together grassroots activists, bloggers and new-media types on the right.

Candidates traveling to New Orleans include Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a long-shot contender.

Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman was scheduled to attend but had to back out because of a bad cold. His wife and two of his daughters will be there instead. 

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he is giving “second thought” to a presidential run, will attend the RLC alongside Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), who has said he is toying with a run.

The field’s front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is skipping both gatherings this weekend, while former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another leading contender, will only be attending the RightOnline conference, which is in his home state.

Bachmann, Cain and McCotter will travel to both Minneapolis and New Orleans.

The straw poll in New Orleans, which concludes Saturday afternoon, could serve as a barometer of the right’s attitude toward the GOP field following Monday’s primary debate in New Hampshire.

The state of the field is still undecided, but it’s early in the campaign cycle. Romney is leading in most polls, but 45 percent of Republicans, in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, said they are dissatisfied with the current choices.

All contenders at the RLC will appear on the straw poll ballot, aside from Perry. Romney, Pawlenty, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson will also appear on the ballot.

Romney edged Paul out by only one vote at last year’s conference, while Palin, who attended in 2010 but won’t show in 2011, tied for second with Gingrich.

Two would-be candidates who declined to run will also be at the RLC: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Presidential candidates will likely knock on their doors in the coming months to seek their coveted endorsements.

While RightOnline — which has 1,300 participants registered to attend — lacks a straw poll, it will give candidates an opportunity to appeal to both Tea Party activists and conservative bloggers, who are influential in shaping opinions on the right.

Erik Telford, the executive director of RightOnline, said his conference is unique in that it brings together online activists and bloggers with folks from established conservative groups and the grass roots.

“The key distinction is our focus on the Internet and online activism to advance” free-market, limited-government principles, he said. “This a group of people that they need to reach out to and get behind them.”

The foundation for Americans for Prosperity, a large national Tea Party organizing group, sponsors RightOnline.