When Republican activists gather in New Orleans for three days of strategizing and speeches starting Thursday, one big attraction will present a big question: Is Sarah Palin angling for the party's 2012 presidential nomination?
The former Alaska governor will join several other possible White House contenders addressing 3,000 or so party loyalists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Also appearing are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; and, by video, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The speeches will be staggered over several days, so there will be no surveying the field in one sitting. Palin speaks Friday, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Several other potential White House hopefuls are staying away from the gathering, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, both of whom used a similar convention in Memphis to help launch their 2008 candidacies.
That is one reason the session in New Orleans has drawn less notice than the one four years ago, which marked the unofficial kickoff of the GOP presidential campaign.
"It has nothing to do with 2012 and everything to do with 2010," said Ron Kaufman, a strategist for Romney. The ex-governor is on a national book tour, which may serve as a warm-up for a second try at the White House. Huckabee is not attending because it conflicts with the taping of his weekly Fox network show.
Four years ago, Republicans were hunkered down, fearing losses in the midterm election and eager to get on with the race to succeed the increasingly unpopular President George W. Bush. This time, Republicans anticipate big midterm gains and are focusing much more of their energy on the coming November vote.
Still, the meeting in New Orleans provides ample opportunity for speculation about the next presidential campaign -- and especially about Palin, who has proved an endless source of intrigue since running as the GOP's 2008 vice presidential nominee.
Her appearance will be one of a growing number of political speeches Palin has given since leaving the governor's office, publishing a best-seller and launching herself as a TV personality. The question is whether Friday's appearance is a step toward a White House run, or simply another marketing effort -- not that one necessarily precludes the other.
"It helps her celebrity," said David Carney, a GOP strategist attending the conference. "It also exposes her to 50, 60, 100 people from different states who will go back to their Republican Central Committee meetings . . . or the steering committees for various candidates . . . and say, 'We need to get Gov. Palin out here for our Lincoln Day dinner, or let's have a rally and invite her.' "
Palin did not respond to messages seeking comment. In a February appearance on "Fox News Sunday," she left open the possibility of running for president in 2012 "if I believed that that is the right thing to do for our country and for the Palin family."
Regardless of her intent, there are plenty of Republicans who want to see and hear from Palin, even if they question her viability as a presidential candidate.
Quitting her job midterm was "not the move of someone who has their heart set on becoming president," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a GOP Southern strategist. Still, he looks forward to her stop in New Orleans. "She's a superb speaker who can really get people fired up," he said. "I like listening to her. I like looking at her."