NEW ORLEANS — A candidate in waiting, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is elbowing the Republicans already in the 2012 presidential race as he courts party activists, operatives and donors still shopping for someone to back against President Barack Obama.
His appearance Saturday at the Republican Leadership Conference could offer another tantalizing hint that he's ready to upend a crowded field of candidates who have worked months to amass name recognition, organization and campaign cash. The longest serving governor of his state is drawing much interest despite little effort.
He long insisted he wouldn't run. But in recent weeks, he has softened his refusals and his advisers have started laying the groundwork for a campaign in Iowa.
In a video message Friday to a gathering of conservative bloggers in Minneapolis, Perry was circumspect about his next political act as he promoted his record in Texas.
"Like you, we know that Texans can spend their own money better than any government official could on their best days, especially those in Washington, D.C.," Perry said. He sounded an awful lot like his would-be rivals.
"In time, our shared effort just might transform the culture in Washington, D.C., and restore the necessary balance between Washington and the states, putting America back on track to true greatness," he said in remarks that began with a "howdy" to the RightOnline conference.
The coyote-shooting, tough-talking ex-Democrat has never lost an election. As Republicans try to determine the strongest challenger to Obama, the party establishment and tea partyers don't seem satisfied with their current options.
At the other end of the Mississippi River, the uncertainty about the Republican was just as murky.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who used Monday's debate in New Hampshire to enter the race, raised the New Orleans crowd to its feet on Friday. She also drew cheers during her speech Saturday to conservative bloggers when she described herself as "a very different kind of leader."
So, too, did Herman Cain, a former pizza executive and tea party favorite who has never served in public office. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite among the libertarian wing of the party, won praise for his latest White House bid.
All are trying to spark interest and capture the imagination of their party's most active members. In speeches tailored for the party's base, they hit similar messages about making Obama a one-term president, repealing his health care overhaul and lowering taxes.
Bachmann kept at it Saturday, telling the conservative bloggers in Minneapolis that she is "a very different kind of leader" and accusing Obama of having "morbid obesity when it comes to spending and deficits."
Absent from the southern event were the nominal front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Pawlenty was heading to Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday before speaking to online activists in Minneapolis. Much of the talk this past week about Pawlenty concerned his self-described lackluster debate performance and his fumbled then-renewed-attack on the health care overhaul that Romney put in place in his state.
Romney has assembled a strong organization and is expected to produce impressive fundraising results in the latest reporting period. But questions about his record and authenticity give some hesitation.
Such pining for new candidates already has resulted in disappointment.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour both decided to skip the race. Donald Trump flirted early and then left.
Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the GOP's 2008 vice presidential pick, overshadowed former Romney's presidential announcement in New Hampshire with an East Coast bus tour that took her to his home base of Boston and then across the border into the state the hosts the first nominating primary.
She hasn't said what she will do.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign troubles have helped Perry. Gingrich's senior aides resigned en masse in disagreements with the candidate. Many of Gingrich's top aides are alumni of Perry campaigns and could return to Texas should Perry decide to run.
Indications were that he was leaning that way.
Gingrich's former political director was laying the groundwork for Perry in Iowa. Perry planned a national day of prayer in Houston, a move seen by GOP insiders as a play to evangelicals who are an important part of the GOP base, particularly in Iowa.
Yet Perry is starting late.
Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina traditionally are won through frequent visits and courting the local officials who deliver supporters, block by block. Perry has not been to Iowa since the 2008 campaign when he campaigned in the state for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Bakst reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.