Jillian Bandes

Welcome to the schmoozy, boozy wonderland of the Southern Republican Leadership conference.

The southern belles have curled their blonde bobs so tightly that there's no way we're not winning in November. Bouncy volunteers are ushering businessmen into a political blitz. Bourbon Street is oozing into the ballroom.

When you hold a conference like this, in a location like this, things seem really, really great. People are thrilled to just exist here. Compared to 2006, the state of Republican affairs are like Christmas. With good weather.

Unfortunately, it may be a Christmas without Santa Claus.

Both Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, two perceived GOP presidential frontrunners, have bowed out of the happenings. Pawlenty's absent because of his obligation to welcome troops back home to Minnesota, and Romney isn't here because, uh, he needed to attend the New England Council "Politics and Eggs" breakfast at Bedford Village Inn. Really.

Why did T-Paw and Big Mitt buck the Big Easy? Mary Matalin, a speaker on Thursday evening, may have given some insight. Critics, and the mainstream media, "imply that having an anchor in the South is somehow an albatross" for the Republican Party, she said.

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Maybe. Romney has rumors circulating that he'll ignore the South for his Presidential bid, a previously unthinkable maneuver for a Republican candidate. Romney's a northeastern boy, and T-Paw's from the Midwest, so maybe their geographical distance contributed to their emotional distance.

But that doesn't explain it. Is it simply that they're too good to show up? That's more likely. Both T-Paw and Mitt have such an assemblage around them — people, cash, momentum — that it's more likely they viewed the SRLC as a chance to buck convention, literally and figuratively. They were at the Conservative Political Action Conference, held last month in D.C., but decided to shun the voodoo of Louisiana's flagship city. They're confident in D.C. circles, but don't think they need to rely on the relaxed and easy atmosphere of SRLC.

Thankfully, attendees aren't concerned. They're more interested in talking politics and gushing over the guys who did show up.

"I was a local, and saw this on the internet, and just decided it would be a good idea to come," said one Baton Rouge resident, who had assembled a posse of similarly middle-aged friends to bask in the pure Republicanness of it all. He's an insurance adjuster.

"The one thing I found interesting — was that he was in favor of doing something like social security, which George Bush ran on," said another Baton Rouge resident, who was pretty thrilled to take in an afternoon session featuring Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich was the headliner for Thursday evening's speaker lineup, but also held several town hall style events with conference participants. There, he plugged his American Solutions tax plan, and bandied about like a bonafide southern boy.

"When you speak from the heart, you don't need a teleprompter," he began, and then began oozing praise for Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour. He then launched into serious talk about Obama's "socialist machine," and why the GOP was sitting pretty. Saying Republicans were "at an unusual moment in American history," Newt was Presidentially-optimistic about chances in 2010, and of course, 2012.

"The Republican Party was founded on freedom, not serfdom. The Republican party was founded on the work ethic, not the redistribution ethic," he said. Saying America was "at an unusual moment in American history," he emphasized Republican involvement on the local level. But he was rather excitable about national politics, as well.

"When" — not if — "we win control of the Senate this year, stage one of the end of Obamanism is a new Republican Congress in January that simply refuses to fund any of Obama's proposals," he said.

"This is a fundamental fight over the core definition of America, and is going to require us to talk in a very different language about politics," he continued. "I think its going to make us talk about the culture, rather than just the politics... are we endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights? Or does government define who we are?"

Other speakers on Thursday evening included Liz Cheney and J.C. Watts. Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Michael Steele are slated to take the stage before the event's close on Saturday night.


Jillian Bandes

Jillian Bandes is the National Political Reporter for Townhall.com