NEW ORLEANS - The Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in New Orleans featured Republican heavyweights: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Liz Cheney, J.C. Watts, and even a live broadcast by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Yet a number of delegates and reporters left the convention describing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour as "the adult in the room" and "the elder statesman" of the GOP.

Barbour spoke to the assembly on Saturday not only in capacity of governor - as did Texas Governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal - but also as current Chairman of the Republican Governors Association and former Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Barbour chaired the RNC during the 1994 Republican Revolution and seeks similar victories directing RGA strategy in 2010.

Barbour took the stage with all the pomp of a national convention to cheers and applause. "Give 'em Hell Haley," someone shouted from the crowd. Smiling Barbour responded, "I'm just going to tell the truth and they'll feel like it's Hell" - echoing Harry Truman's 1948 Presidential campaign.

Barbour thanked people from across the country for helping Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. He also thanked the federal government for its help. The only speaker at the conference to praise the federal government and perhaps the only person who could get away with it, Barbour did take a jab. Noting that federal auditors report Mississippi's error rate in spending Katrina recovery funds is less then one percent, he said, "Wouldn't we love to see the federal government do something with an error rate of less than one percent?"
He switched from Katrina to what he called "a man made disaster."

"The policies of this Administration and the Pelosi-Reid Congress are disastrous for our country," Barbour said. "We have got to stay focused on the Election of 2010. Don't worry about 2012. We can't wait till 2012 to start taking our country back."

Citing his own budget cuts in Mississippi and those of other Republican governors he said, "Businesses cut spending, families cut spending, and government can cut spending, too. Meanwhile in Washington, the idea that you could cut spending drives cold chills up their spines - those of them that have spines."

Barbour continued, "How do we win in 2010? We stick together. We work. We organize. We campaign. We give. Some of you will even run for public office and we welcome every single one of you. Conservative unity has to be part of that conservative energy. The Democrats' fondest hope is to see Tea Party or other conservatives split off and form a third party. Barack Obama has worn out three sets of kneepads down on his knees praying for the conservative vote to be split in 2010, and we can't let that happen."

Praising the Tea Party in Mississippi, Barbour told delegates they should welcome the Tea Party, independents, former Republicans, and even Democrats who "think like us; believe like us." He said it is fine if someone who has never been involved defeats a Republican incumbent for Congress in the primary: "that person becomes our guy, our candidate."

"We cannot let ourselves be torn apart by the idea of purity. In a two party system, both parties are necessarily coalitions," said Barbour who quoted his "old boss Ronald Reagan" as saying, "someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally, not some kind of 20 percent traitor."

Mississippi trailed only Louisiana in the number of delegates at this year's SRLC which featured folks from every Southern state. The event is second only to the Republican National Convention in size of multi-state GOP gatherings.

Addressing the SRLC on Thursday night, Republican consultant Mary Matalin noted the thousands gathered marked the growth of the Republican Party in the South from the days she first got involved as an assistant to GOP strategist Lee Atwater. She said back then, except for "Clarke Reed and a hand full of bourbon drinking freedom fighters," there were not many Republicans in the South. Reed - a businessman from Greenville - served as the second Mississippi Republican Party Chairman and founded the SRLC in New Orleans in 1969. (His daughter - noted writer Julia Reed - hosted a dinner honoring him and the forty years of the SRLC at her New Orleans home.)

This year, Mitt Romney (who did not attend) won the SRLC's storied Straw Poll. Palin's "you betcha!" became "who dat?" in firing up the crowd. Only Gingrich can spark populism while quoting Albert Camus and Friedrich von Hayek. But despite his plea to focus on 2010 now and worry about 2012 later, many delegates left Louisiana on Sunday talking about the future of Haley Barbour.


Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.