Fresh from a bondage club scandal rattling the party to its soft core, there may no better place to meet and hash out leadership questions than a city of virtue and moral fortitude. A city like New Orleans. The Southern Republican Leadership Conference is the quadrennial gathering of GOP luminaries and high rollers that culminates in a straw poll setting off the long road to nomination. Who among us can forget the tidal wave following Bill Frist's triumph in 2006 that led him to a minor speech on CSPAN at the 2008 Republican National Convention? Or Mitt Romney, who came in second? He had excellent hair. But in a race that went to neither the swift nor the strong, it was third-place John McCain who would go on to spectacular failure as flag bearer of the party. In fairness, McCain, renowned for his political acumen and strategic thinking, encouraged everyone who voted in the SRLC straw poll in 2006 to nominate President Bush for a third term. Indeed, President Bush might have been the most forward-thinking of the bunch, skipping the conference entirely in 1998, yet still winning the straw poll and later the nomination.
Others seem to have taken this lesson. Notably absent from the SRLC this year are Mitt Romney, nominally the presidential frontrunner, who has chosen instead to continue his ghostwriter's book tour, and Tim Pawlenty, remaining behind to welcome soldiers home from the war. There is a shrewdness to this logic--a straw poll victory is short lived but for fundraising and a few press cycles. A loss can draw the wind from a candidate's sails. Ask President Huckabee.
Amongst the GOP faithful in attendance, there is a sense of urgency and optimism. Many I have spoken with feel that in spite of recent scandal--an issue likely to be addressed by RNC Chairman Michael Steele on Saturday--this is a party in ascendance. The Tea Party movement has a strong presence here. And though the presidential election is the SRLC's historic role, the congressional elections this November are the prize. With opinion polls suggesting that President Obama overreached with health care reform, many Republicans feel that not only can they wrest the gavel from Nancy Pelosi's hands, but reclaim the Senate as well. Unseating Harry Reid is a savory bonus.
The most dangerous drinking game in New Orleans this weekend will be to take a shot every time Ronald Reagan's name is mentioned.
D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir.