Winners and losers at the Republican Leadership Conference

Possible 2012 presidential hopeful, former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., arrives on the MS Mount Washington for a boat ride, June 3, 2011 in Laconia, N.H. Associated Press

Jon Huntsman
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- The Republican Leadership Conference - a gathering of conservative and Republican activists that doubles as a cattle call for Republican presidential candidates - wrapped up here Saturday afternoon.

Three of the major GOP candidates - Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman - did not speak at the conference. (Huntsman had planned to speak but dropped out at the last minute, citing a cold.) But a number of candidates - including Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum - did address conference-goers.

So what impact did the three-day confab have on GOP landscape? Let's take a look at the winners and losers:

Winners:

Jon Huntsman: Despite missing the conference - his wife and daughter came in his place but did not speak - former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman finished a strong second in the presidential straw poll.

It was rumored that Huntsman's campaign bought tickets for and bussed in a number of college Republicans to up his vote, and his campaign did not deny as much to CBS News.

If true, it might not matter: The headlines out of the conference will be Huntsman's stronger-then-expected showing among the conservative activists who are believed to view him warily because of his centrist positions on immigration, cap-and-trade legislation and gay rights. And that will serve as a signal to potential donors and the GOP establishment that he may be a viable standard-bearer for the party.

Michele Bachmann: The three-term Congresswoman came into the conference with momentum from her widely-hailed performance in Monday's presidential debate, and she carried it through the conference, giving a well-received speechand finishing third in the straw poll.

Bachmann, who cast herself as the voice of the people, has over the past week effectively transformed herself into the standard-bearer for the hardcore social and fiscal conservatives who are seeking an alternative to establishment candidates like Romney and Pawlenty. When the controversial, media-savvy representative first made it known she was considering a run, the media and GOP establishment responded with skepticism; Now she's being taken seriously and looks like a frontrunner to win the Iowa caucuses.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor didn't participate in the straw poll - even though he has made it known that he is considering a (relatively) late entry into the presidential race. But that didn't matter: With many Republicans still casting about for a consensus candidate, the buzz around a possible Perry run is undeniable.

Perry made a play for the unblinking ideologues on the right, calling for Republicans not to apologize for strong conservative positions. While that position could cause trouble in a general election, it's one that could help him quickly catapult to the top of GOP polls if he ends up entering the race.

Herman Cain: Cain, the breakout star in the GOP field following the first GOP debate, took a bit of a hit as a result of his lackluster performance in the second debate. But he was triumphant here, getting a rapturous reception at a conference where he was largely ignored last year.

While Cain remains a long shot for the nomination, he was one of only four candidates to win more than 100 voters in the straw poll - and his background - he is a businessman who never served in office - was often cited positively by conference-goers who like his outsider status. Plus, he even picked up an endorsement here from Republican mini-icon (and most famous failed Alabama Agriculture Commission candidate in history) Dale Peterson.

Ron Paul: Paul, as expected, won the straw pollthanks to the passionate support of his limited following. And while he remains a long shot for the nomination, his continued success at conferences like this ensures that his Libertarian beliefs will be well represented in the nomination fight.

Losers:

Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker could have rebooted his disastrous campaign here. Instead he doubled down, vowing to ignore the accepted strategies to winning the nomination. Gingrich promised to avoid sound bites and attack ads in favor of a "big philosophical campaign" that, it appears, prioritizes long, ideas-filled speeches over campaigning and organization.

And while, as he put it, he could potentially "shock the media" - and the Republican establishment - by winning this way, his speech was unlikely to win back any of the potential donors scared off by his stumbling campaign rollout and subsequent staff exodus.

Mitt Romney: Romney won the straw poll here last year but finished a disappointing fifth this year. That was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the former Massachusetts governor is skipping straw polls this year and he had no real presence here. But a fifth-place finish is not impressive for a nominal frontrunner, and suggests that the race remains far more wide-open then he might like.

Tim Pawlenty: Pawlenty, who has been seeking to cast himself as the establishment alternative to Romney, finished ninth in the straw poll with just 18 votes. And even worse, he was mocked from the podium by an Obama impersonator.

The impersonator mentioned Pawlenty's strange decision to back away at Monday's debate from his coinage of the term "Obamneycare" to link Romney to the federal health care law. Referencing Pawlenty, the impersonator quipped that "spine transplants" are covered under the health care law - prompting guffaws from the audience.

Sarah Palin: Palin had her hardcore supporters here, who carried signs and pins expressing their continued allegiance to the former Alaska governor. But she seems to be fading as a potential candidate; Bachmann appears to be supplanting her as the favorite of Tea Party- and social conservative-types seeking a champion. Palin got just 41 votes in the straw poll; that's the sort of finish that suggests the activists aren't exactly clamoring for her to enter the race.

More from the Republican Leadership Conference:

Ron Paul wins Republican Leadership Conf. straw poll; Jon Huntsman second
Rick Perry: Republicans should "stop apologizing"
Buddy Roemer decries special interest "tyranny"
Michele Bachmann: I'll bring the voice of the people to the Oval Office
Did Michele Bachmann "raise" 23 foster kids?"
Haley Barbour: Tea Party must stick with GOP
Newt Gingrich vows to win his way; Can it work?
Huckabee: Don't put social conservatives in a box
Herman Cain: "I have a dream"

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