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 offered yet 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 drew much interest despite little effort so far to put together a traditional campaign.
"I stand before you today as a disciplined conservative Texan, a committed Republican and a proud American, united with you to restoring our nation and revive the American dream," Perry said during an address that repeatedly drew the crowd to its feet.
He sounded every bit a candidate.
"Our shared conservative values, our belief in the individual is the great hope of our nation," he said.
Perry has 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. They characterize it as a coin-toss whether he enters the field in the coming weeks. 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.
Perry's message to them: say what you think.
"Our party cannot be all things to all people. It can't be. Our loudest opponents on the left are never going to like us so let's stop trying to curry favor with them," Perry said. "Let's stand up and speak with pride about our morals and our values." The Republican presidential field remains 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 Saturday at the other end of the Mississippi as "a very different kind of leader."
It's a pitch similar to that of 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 the New Orleans straw poll after a rousing speech railing against Washington and the Federal Reserve.
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 Obama has a "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 spoke in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday before speaking to the online activists at Minneapolis's RightOnline conference.
"The issue isn't, 'Can somebody stand up here and chirp and give a speech?' The issue is do you have the fortitude to do it? Do you have the leadership ability and experience to do it?" Pawlenty said, drawing a polite reception compared with the rousing one given Bachmann hours earlier.
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.
Romney finished in fifth place in a straw poll of participants here, behind a second-place Huntsman, who is set to join the GOP field on Tuesday.
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 he 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.
He could make up for his tardiness with toughness: "That mix of arrogance and audacity that guides the Obama administration is an affront to every freedom-loving American."
Bakst reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.