By John Whitesides
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Sometimes fractious Republican loyalists agreed on Friday on at least one thing about the 2012 White House race -- President Barack Obama has got to go.
Many of the officials and activists attending the three-day Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans said the party should move beyond recent ideological battles and unite behind a 2012 nominee who can beat Obama.
"Our goal, our focus, has to be to elect a new Republican president next year," said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who considered a White House run but decided against it.
"Don't get hung up on purity. In this business, it is unity that wins elections," he said.
Republicans are launching their 2012 race to find a challenger to Obama with fresh memories of last year's divisive primary fights between the party establishment and conservative Tea Party insurgents, which might have cost the party even bigger gains in the midterm elections.
In 2012, many of the activists said, the focus will be less on ideology and more on practicality.
"It's not about finding somebody who we agree with, but who the American people agree with," said Linda Herren, a member of the Republican National Committee from Georgia. "I can tell you I won't agree 100 percent with our candidate, but I will support whoever wins the primary. We have to beat Obama."
The slow-starting Republican presidential race has gained momentum in recent weeks, although most national polls show all of the Republicans trailing Obama 17 months before the election.
Four Republican presidential hopefuls addressed the crowd of nearly 2,000 on Friday, the second day of the three-day conference, and made their case for why they were the best person for beating Obama.
Representative Michele Bachmann, who founded the Tea Party caucus in Congress, said she could bring together fiscal and social conservatives along with Tea Party activists.
'TEA PARTY BIGGER THAN EVER'
"Get ready 2012, the Tea Party will be bigger than ever," she said. "The Tea Party and all America has one goal and it is this -- that Barack Obama will be a one-term president."
All of the contenders slammed Obama's economic leadership and criticized his policies as a dramatic expansion of government control and regulation that had stifled growth and drained the budget.
"There is a sense of urgency for us to take this nation back," said businessman Herman Cain, who drew a big crowd and a rousing reception. He mocked critics who say he has no political experience and doesn't know how things work.
"I'm going to Washington to change how things work," he said.
Representative Ron Paul and former Senator Rick Santorum also addressed the conference, which has about 2,000 registrants -- fewer than last year, when 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was a featured speaker.
Palin, still considering a White House bid, did not attend the event, and neither did two top-tier contenders, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. Former U.S. envoy Jon Huntsman, who will launch his candidacy next week, was scheduled to attend but canceled because of illness.
Barbara Mabray, of Galveston, Texas, said she came to support an effort to draft Senator Jim DeMint, a conservative who led the challenge to party establishment candidates in several of last year's primaries.
"We need someone of his stature, a proven person," she said. "I want someone who can win."
Texas Governor Rick Perry, one of several Republicans still considering getting in the race in response to complaints about the weakness of the field, will address the conference on Saturday.
Registrants at the conference also are voting in a straw poll of the 2012 nomination race. The results will be announced on Saturday afternoon.