(CBS News) TAMPA, Fla. - As Republican leaders and state delegates trickled into the Tampa Bay Times Forum here Monday to get a lay of the land where they'll officially nominate the next GOP presidential candidate this week, the breakout superstar of the party's 2008 convention was serving baked beans at an Arizona barbecue dive.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, who was the party's last vice presidential nominee and stunned the scene by acing her convention speech even after the teleprompter malfunctioned, announced two weeks ago she would not be attending this year's convention. Having flirted - forthan any other serious contender - with a presidential bid herself, Palin opted to channel her celebrity into a campaign event for Arizona congressional candidate Kirk Adams. Or, more likely, GOP nominee Mitt Romney simply didn't invite her.
Either way, after just a few short years dominating the media spotlight and electrifying crowds of thousands with her iconic brand of grassroots conservatism, Sarah Palin's moment seems to have passed.
She's not alone: The 2008 convention lineup featured speakers like Tim Pawlenty - twice now an almost-VP nominee - and Rep. Michele Bachmann, relatively fresh faces tasked with helping build the party's next generation. It was a nice contrast to the old guard of Republicans dominating the schedule: Fred Thompson, Sens. Tom Coburn and Lindsay Graham, Rudy Giuliani, and the nominee, Sen. John McCain. But four years later, Pawlenty and Bachmann have been left with one failed presidential bid each. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another 2008 up-and-comer, has yet to find his opening to really shine.
Enter Chris Christie, the N.J. governor made famous by his refusal to hold back remarks - vulgar or otherwise - who delivered this year's convention keynote address Tuesday night and is largely expected to test a run of a his own in 2016.
"He's it - he's the rising star of the party," said Mary Beth Dougherty, a Pennsylvania delegate who originally supported Rick Santorum. Dougherty said it's Christie's "brutal honesty" that makes for both an exciting political character and an appealing elected official. "I'd love to be able to support him as a presidential candidate in the future. He tells it as it is; he says what he wants to do and he does it."
Almost instantly following Christie's address Tuesday, trademarked by his line about "respect" over "love," critics began tearing apart his speech: "Unfocused," "selfish," "out of character." But prior to hearing his remarks, Illinois delegate Katie White said she doesn't worry about Christie, and other new stars of the GOP, like presumptive VP nominee Paul Ryan, becoming jaded by the political and media processes to which many believe Palin fell victim.
"They all can stand on their own two feet," White said. "I don't think any of them are new to the process. I think they know what they're up against and they understand that their integrity is the most important thing, and they're willing to stand by it. They're not letting a poll dictate what they do."
Dougherty agreed: "So much of the problem with Sarah Palin was that she let other people tell her story," she said. "These guys here this year all have records to stand on, and people are excited. They're excited because four years ago, President Obama was the new guy, reasonably younger than Sen. McCain, and that was part of the problem for our party. This year, though, I think there's more enthusiasm; I think Congressman Ryan on the ticket has attracted a lot of attention to the conservative message."
(Watch: The 2012 Republican presidential primary, in four minutes.)
In addition to Ryan, who will speak Wednesday night, this year's schedule was loaded with faces making up the so-called "new guard" of the party: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who represents the libertarian wing facing an exit from politics by their small-government hero, Rep. Ron Paul. Wisconsin delegate Bob Spindell said he would add to that list Scott Walker, his state's governor who survived a nasty recall fight that was considered a symbolic victory over unions.
"In Wisconsin, we're sort of the center of the universe right now with Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, who's gonna be the vice presidential nominee, and also [RNC chair] Reince Priebus," Spindell said. "We have a history in our state of the politicians, the Republican politicians, doing what they say they're gonna do. Scott Walker and Paul Ryan did that, and it makes all the difference when you're talking about getting a party behind you for years to come."
White reasoned that this new wave of Republican leaders wouldn't be possible without the "old guard": "With someone like a John McCain, who has so much experience and integrity around him, you have to say some of the 'old guard' helped guide the 'new guard' in how to become the leaders of the party who stand up for what they believe," she said.
"We're kind of turning over a leaf to the next generation of young conservatives," said Dougherty. "I think we're finally reaching out to younger voters and attracting the interests of younger voters, with candidates like Rubio and Christie. We've come into the next century."