No clear GOP challenger to Obama

NEW ORLEANS — Southern Republicans wrapped up a three-day meeting in New Orleans on Saturday unified in fervent opposition to President Obama, but wide open at this early stage about whom they want to challenge him in 2012.

Party activists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference cheered potential presidential candidates such as Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, as well as absentee Mitt Romney.

But they also readily volunteered objections to the same names: Gingrich has personal baggage, Palin's too inexperienced, Romney pushed Obama-like health care while governor of Massachusetts and Pawlenty lacks charisma.

Given those commonly heard objections among rank-and-file party workers, it appears that no potential Republican candidate can yet claim to be the heir apparent and the race could be wide open.

Take Palin, the former Alaska governor who headlined the recent convention of tea party activists.

She gave an impassioned speech to the Republicans, denouncing Obama's foreign policy and domestic agenda, particularly his energy policies. She favors more oil and gas drilling along U.S. coasts. She's said she may run.

Some said her work as a small town mayor and her half-term as governor were not enough experience to lead the party's charge against Obama, even if he also had scant experience before winning the presidency.

"She's great. But she lacks the experience," said Elmer Flucht of Maumelle, Ark., in a comment heard several times Saturday.

Romney in one way has the opposite problem as Palin — too much experience in his one term as governor, particularly his experience enacting a health care plan with a mandate that people get insurance that some Republicans find uncomfortably similar to the Obama plan they hate.

Gingrich, the former House Speaker, used his speech to tear into Obama as the leader of "a secular, socialist machine." He said he'd decide next year whether to run.

Several attendees lauded Gingrich for his intellect and his skills as a speaker. But several also questioned whether he could win.

Pawlenty, the second term governor of Minnesota, did not attend the conference, but spoke via videotape. Said Judy Smith of Montgomery, Texas: "He doesn't have the charisma."