As Republicans gather deep in the conservative South to hear from the party's presidential candidates, they'll also be sending a not-so-subtle message to President Barack Obama -- this is GOP territory.
No fewer than five GOP hopefuls were appearing at the four-day Republican Leadership Conference, planning to introduce themselves to activists, operatives and donors who have not yet rallied behind a candidate in the volatile primary race. And from the early moments, it was clear any criticism of Obama would earn applause.
"He is a national secular European socialist. He believes in the government," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign imploded last week when his top advisers resigned. In one of the first speeches since the shakeup, he entered and exited to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
"He is the opposite of freedom," Gingrich said of Obama during a sprawling, 41-minute speech.
Among others planning to speak from the growing presidential field: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced her candidacy Monday. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is officially getting in the race Tuesday, scrapped his planned appearance Friday because of what his aides said was an illness. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is mulling a bid, is on tap for Saturday.
Notably absent: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads in early national polls; aides blamed scheduling conflicts even though the event has been months in the making. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republicans' 2008 vice presidential nominee who is considering running for the top job, also was not scheduled to attend. And former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty planned to campaign in Iowa and then speak to a conservative bloggers conference in his home state.
"In some ways, that shows they're writing it off," Christian Grose, a University of Southern California professor, said of the absent candidates. "Perhaps they shouldn't write it off because there's not a serious Republican from the South running."
Grose added: "There's an opening for these candidates, but the fact that they're not going is showing the potential decline of this group. And that's surprising because the South is Republican territory."
The gathering comes as Obama's re-election campaign maps out a general election strategy with an eye toward making further inroads into the South. It's been a GOP stronghold for decades, and arguably the only region left where Republicans still dominate.
In 2008, Obama won the long-time Republican states of North Carolina and Virginia largely by boosting turnout among minorities and young voters, and his team is looking for repeat outcomes in both states next year. He's also intent on winning the ultimate battleground of Florida again, and his advisers are considering competing aggressively in Georgia, given the growth of the Democratic-leaning Hispanic population.
Republicans shrug off the Obama campaign's talk of competing in the South. They point to the Democrat's poll standing, which has hovered around 50 percent approval, as well as stubbornly high unemployment.
As South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley put it Thursday: "If he continues fighting the creation of jobs the way he's doing now, if he continues mandating health care the way he is now on our citizens, if he continues stopping the way that we can enact illegal immigration (laws), no, his chances are done."
Five states to the west in New Orleans, all eyes were on Gingrich on Thursday.
The Georgia lawmaker who left Congress in 1999 was looking to convince his fellow Republicans that he remained a viable candidate even after much of his staff walked out on him. Disclosures that he had at one point as much as $500,000 in debt at luxury jeweler Tiffany's raised eyebrows. And going on a lavish Mediterranean cruise with his wife just weeks after launching his campaign put his seriousness about a campaign in doubt.
"Barack Obama is the most successful food stamp president in American history," Gingrich said, repeating his familiar criticism of the incumbent. "I'd like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history."
All candidates at the gathering were expected to pitch themselves as strong and conservative alternatives to Obama, who will run for a second term with the undeniable advantage of incumbency. He is expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have the help of independent groups that can raise virtually unlimited sums of money.
Also speaking Friday were former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a conservative who once was the No. 3 Republican in the Senate; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; and former pizza executive Herman Cain.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.