The GOP's First 2012 Cattle Call

WASHINGTON - Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who gave the response to President Barack Obama’s address to Congress, appears to be receiving the most 2012 Republican buzz this week.

But starting Thursday, several other potential candidates will start garnering some attention of their own.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which begins Thursday and extends through Saturday, is really the first true GOP cattle call for the next presidential election.

Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have all been given prime speaking slots before the annual gathering of conservative activists — and they'll be among several other possible contenders in attendance.

Will conservatives turn to Huckabee?
Huckabee, the personable former Arkansas governor who surprised the political world with his primary win in Iowa, will give his first post-election political speech on the direction of the GOP on Thursday afternoon (1:30 p.m. ET).

After the 2008 campaign, Huckabee got his own talk show and wrote a book, “Do the Right Thing: Inside the Movement That’s Bringing Common Sense Back to America.” He'll even be signing copies of his tome at CPAC.

Huckabee, who maintains an active political action committee (PAC), is already a proven presidential campaigner. He starts with a loyal base of Christian conservatives, and if he sees an opening, don’t be surprised if he considers another bid.

Romney, in his comfort zone
This conference holds a special place for Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, who won the straw polls at the last two CPAC gatherings. A year ago he chose to announce that he was dropping out of the White House race in front of this group. His decision was greeted with shouts of “No!” from the crowd.

In 2009, Romney has already ramped up efforts to increase his visibility. He introduced 2010 California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman at an event at the National Governors Association conference, and on Monday, he touted writing $1,000 checks to vulnerable 2010 Republican candidates through his PAC.

What he says during his speech (Friday, 4:35 p.m. ET) could hint to his plans for 2012, which may be his last chance to run for president. Remember, Romney is 61, and if he were to hold off until 2016, he might be considered too old. At 69, Romney would tie Ronald Reagan as the oldest president inaugurated to a first term. But don't forget, 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCain would have taken the oath at 72 if he had won.

Prime-time for Sanford
Mark Sanford has possibly the best speaking spot at the conference, as he'll be giving the keynote address at Friday night’s Ronald Reagan Banquet (7:30 p.m. ET).

Sanford has upped his profile recently, taking the lead against the stimulus plan — and has shown some toughness in fighting back against Democratic critics.

He seemed to have some ambitions in 2008, potentially as McCain’s vice-presidential pick.

But a shaky cable news appearance, in which he wasn’t able to articulate a McCain position, seriously damaged his chances. (On CNN, he said he was "drawing a blank" when asked to name a major economic policy that McCain and the Bush administration disagreed on).

So far, Sanford has been sharp and able to grab the spotlight. Look for him to be one of the crowd favorites at CPAC.

A tough crowd for Pawlenty?
It will be interesting to see how conservative activists react to Tim Pawlenty — who is constantly fighting the perception that he's too moderate.

The Minnesota governor had some tough words for his party and the direction it must take during a firebrand speech to the Republican Governors Association in Miami last November.

Leading up to this conference, he has been on other side of more hard-line Republicans on some issues — including the acceptance of stimulus money.

We’ll see what kind of speech he gives Saturday. Will it be more of "Dr. Tim’s tough medicine," or will he dial it back in front of this crowd?

Pawlenty’s someone who’s been acting like, talking like, and walking like someone with higher political ambitions. This speech could define how he'll run in a Republican primary — if he does decide to throw his hat in the ring.

Where did you go, Sarah, Bobby and John?
There will be three notable absences at CPAC — Jindal, McCain, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The former Vice Presidential nominee, who appeared interview-happy immediately after the campaign, has avoided the Beltway spotlight altogether as of late.

She skipped last weekend’s National Governors Association conference and she's set to miss CPAC too — where she would have been queen of the ball. But, she's battling budget problems at home, as well as her own tax problems.

Don’t worry though, the conference won’t be Sarah-free. There will be two sessions, featuring a taped video interview entitled, “Sarah Palin Unplugged on the Media.”

Jindal’s team said he wasn’t attending even before last night’s GOP response speech, which got mixed reviews.

"We get more invites than we can accept," Jindal's Press Secretary Kyl Plotkin said in an e-mail.

McCain has never been a favorite of the CPAC crowd, especially after his 2006 immigration efforts. He did not attend last year, either — despite being the party’s likely nominee.

Picking a favorite, a word of caution
It should be interesting to see which of the group of hopefuls wins this year’s straw poll. The results will be unveiled on Saturday  — right before Rush Limbaugh speaks and is feted with a “Defender of the Constitution Award.”

One note of caution: Of the most recent straw poll winners — Romney (2008 and 2007) and George Allen (2006) — neither went on to capture the Republican nomination.

One final note
There's more than just presidential postering going on at CPAC. Here's a look at some of the other conference speakers and events:

  • Speaker: Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher (Thursday, 11:45 a.m. ET)
  • Speaker: Karl Rove (Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET)
  • Speaker: Ann Coulter (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET)
  • Speaker: Rush Limbaugh (Saturday, 5:00 p.m. ET)
  • Screening: Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (Fri. 7:30p)
  • Discussion: "Al Franken and ACORN: How Liberals Are Destroying the American Election System" (Thursday, 2:30 p.m. ET)
  • Discussion: "Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?" (Friday, 9:20 a.m.)
  • Discussion: "Will Congress Take Your Guns" (Friday, 10:45 a.m. ET)
  • Discussion: "The True Cost of Global Warming Hysteria" (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET)

Domenico Montanaro covers politics for NBC News.

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