OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma – Republicans are heading south this week, bringing their stump speeches south of Iowa just days after they converged there for a similar gathering.
Eleven likely or declared 2016 presidential candidates are set to take the stage at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where they’ll lobby for activists’ support and their votes in the region’s largest straw poll. The event is one of the few all-hands summits not in one of the key early voting states, but the Oklahoma City event attracts southern activists, a key bloc for any Republican.
Fox News announced Wednesday that just 10 candidates – from the expected pool of 18 or so – will be included in the party’s first primary debate on Aug. 6, so many of the Republicans appearing this weekend – which includes a handful of long shots – have less than three months to shore up support and grow their polling numbers to secure a spot on that stage.
Here’s what to watch for at the three-day event.
Can Jeb Bush get the crowd riled up and avoid the missteps of last week?
Bush is polling and fundraising well, but at Liberty University two weeks ago, he saw a tepid reception from the evangelical attendees and spent the next week floundering over predictable questions on Iraq and the legacy of his brother, former President George W. Bush. He also recently moved to the right on gay marriage after being criticized by conservatives for being too moderate on the issue. Does he press the issue in Oklahoma City? Can he get the crowd pumped up for 2016?
Can Scott Walker continue his early momentum?
The Wisconsin governor impressed activists early and is polling well – particularly among those looking for an alternative to Bush, but can Walker maintain the lead while in the spotlight?
“I’m probably the most scrutinized politician in America,” Walker said on CNN on Tuesday.
Can Rick Santorum win new crowds?
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is just days from his own presidential announcement, but he’s already seen large swaths of his 2012 team defect for other candidates, like the fresher faced Walker or the 2008 favorite, Huckabee. Santorum is going to need to prove he can win new hearts and new crowds four years after his Iowa caucus win.
How does Chris Christie fare?
The New Jersey Republican governor has shied away from many of these all-hands-on-deck events; meanwhile, scandals at home are clouding his presumed presidential ambitions, so Christie’s reception here in Oklahoma will be a good indicator of how he’ll do among southern conservatives.
Can Carly Fiorina carry her Iowa buzz South?
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO barely registers in national polls, but she has made waves among Iowa’s keyed-in activists, particularly at last weekend’s Iowa Lincoln Dinner; the Des Moines Register declared that Fiorina seemed to “steal the show.”
How does Bobby Jindal talk about his executive order?
The Louisiana Republican governor announced Tuesday that he would use his executive authority to enforce a controversial religious liberty law lawmakers in his state abandoned – the law mandates protections for those who opposes gay marriage.
Jindal has previously told msnbc the law merely reinforces the First Amendment, but critics say it’s one of the most discriminatory laws in the country.