Southern Republicans Gather in New Orleans with RNC Controversy Front and Center

A star-studded cast of GOP heavyweights will be speaking this weekend at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But the conference itself may not be the main attraction for the hundreds of activists, party workers, and leaders who will be coming to hear the likes of Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul.

Instead, the attendees will be all abuzz with gossip about who's up, who's down, who's in or out at the Republican National Committee. No doubt Southern GOP committeemen will be special targets of a media looking for a story about the continuing soap opera that Michael Steele's chairmanship has become. And to make matters even more interesting, Steele is still on the agenda as closing speaker for the conference on Saturday afternoon.

The dizzying progression of scandals, charges of misuse of party funds, personnel changes, and high-profile calls for Steele to step down threaten to take the focus off what should be the conference's main purpose: to rally the troops and send them off to the midterm wars with confidence and enthusiasm. Instead, they have the chairman of their party basically accusing them of racism for questioning his job performance, a national organization in painful disarray, and the entire party waiting for the next scandal or embarrassment to drop. Although there have been a few calls for Steele to step down, most of the national committee seems to be solidly behind him, so there is little chance they can force him out. But it won't take much for that to change. Steele has been given just about all the rope he is going to get, and with midterms approaching, the absolute last thing the party needs is this kind of turmoil at the top.

What kind of reception can Chairman Steele expect on Saturday? The chairman has never been very popular with the rank and file, but the attendees will mostly be leadership types who look for results. And when the organization you head can raise $11.4 million in March, you're not doing half bad. Steele will be greeted politely but not enthusiastically.

The conference will also be notable for who isn't attending. Mitt Romney suddenly found something better to do on March 25 and canceled his scheduled appearance. Some might think Mitt is going into hiding because a lot of Republicans are angry at him for RomneyCare, which served as something of a template for ObamaCare. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Romney is going to be promoting his new book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

Still, as the acknowledged front-runner for the nomination, Romney is not doing himself any favors by passing up an event where his main rivals -- Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee -- will be the headliners. What's he afraid of? There really may be some backlash associated with RomneyCare, especially among Southern conservatives who poll as the most opposed to national health insurance reform. In this instance, it is possible Romney thought it wiser to avoid unpleasant confrontations until passions cool somewhat.