Republicans ponder 2010, and 2012, in New Orleans

As many as 3,000 party activists are to attend the four-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the most prominent gathering of Republicans outside of their presidential nominating conventions.

Several potential presidential wannabes will address the conference, testing themes and messages as Republicans gird for congressional elections this November and ponder who should represent them in 2012.

The headliner is Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee and former governor of Alaska, who is hugely popular among the party’s conservative base.

She is to address the gathering on Friday with a speech criticizing Obama’s offshore oil drilling plans, unveiled last week, as insufficient to add significantly to U.S. fuel supplies.

“Instead of ‘drill, baby, drill,’ the more you look into this the more you realize it’s ‘stall, baby, stall,'” she said last week.

The Republican conference presents the party faithful an opportunity to search for the best ways to attract voters, taking advantage of Americans’ concerns about the weak U.S. economy and the healthcare overhaul that Obama’s Democrats pushed through Congress.

“You have a lot of folks right now who want to speak to a lot of the party faithful about how we best go about drawing a contrast with the Obama administration and Democrats and how we best articulate those contrasts,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, an adviser to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor seriously considering a 2012 presidential run.

Also speaking are other leading Republican lights, and possible candidates, such as former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.