NEW ORLEANS — The Southern Republican Leadership Conference has become known in recent years as an early testing ground for would-be presidential candidates, a place to make an impression on party activists and the media. But there is a far different message coming out of New Orleans this weekend: 2012 can wait.

A host of potential candidates trooped through the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel during the three-day gathering — Sarah Palin being the most prominent though not necessarily the best received — but the gathering had none of the feel of four years ago in Memphis.

In 2006, buffeted by growing dissatisfaction with then-president George W. Bush and heading toward a midterm election in which they ultimately lost control of the House and Senate, Republicans were eager to jump ahead to 2008. This year, the roughly 3,000 activists from across the South have their eyes on 2010, as do the politicians who may seek the nomination in two years. With President Obama and the Democrats weakened, the energy and enthusiasm on display throughout the weekend reflect optimism among Republicans that, after consecutive drubbings in 2006 and 2008, a genuine turnaround may be on the horizon — if they don’t get distracted or divided.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who was a young party staffer in his home state when the SRLC was born 40 years ago, delivered that message at a breakfast of southern Republican chairmen and members of the Republican National Committee that was hosted by the Republican Governors Association.

Quoting Fred Smith, the founder and chairman of FedEx, Barbour told the group, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is winning in 2010. … Then we’ll worry about 2012.”

Like many of the other conference speakers this weekend, Barbour may have his eye on a presidential campaign of his own in two years.

As a former national party chairman at the time of the GOP’s 1994 victory, Barbour knows that the best thing he can do as a prospective candidate is to help Republicans maximize the party’s gains in 2010. He is taking every opportunity to do so.

The chairman of the RGA, Barbour is moving to fill the vacuum left by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is under fire and on the defensive after a series of missteps by his committee.

The breakfast Barbour hosted on Saturday was a not-so-subtle way to establish the RGA as central to the party’s rebuilding hopes and to make himself one of its leading voices in shaping both the message and strategy for 2010.

Republicans are determined to reverse the policies of the Obama administration. That makes winning control of the House or Senate the party’s highest priority this year. But Barbour reminded the breakfast audience not only that governors helped rebuild the party in the 1990s but also that there is a greater chance of winning congressional races if there is a strong incumbent Republican governor or winning gubernatorial candidate on the ballot.

“Governors matter for having governors,” he said, “but also governors matter down the ticket this year, particularly for Senate races.”

The list of prospective 2012 candidates who appeared in New Orleans included, in addition to Barbour and Palin, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, 2008 candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who stayed in Minnesota to welcome home National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq, spoke by video, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, two of the three finalists for the 2008 GOP nomination, skipped the New Orleans gathering.

Palin was clearly the biggest draw. Whether she will try to convert her celebrity status into being a candidate or choose to try to play kingmaker to some other candidate in 2012 isn’t clear yet. She should not be underestimated as a force within the party, but the weekend showed that she isn’t the only Republican who can appeal both to tea party activists and GOP rank-and-file.

Perry, who has said he is not interested in running for president and faces a competitive reelection in Texas, spoke several hours after Palin and received a reception that was easily the equal of hers.

Clarke Reed, who served for years as the Republican National Committee member from Mississippi and who founded the Southern Republican Leadership Conference 40 years ago, said the meeting this weekend has restored the group to its original purpose. Four years ago, he said, the organization got infatuated with presidential politics and straw polls.

Now, he said, “It’s back to the grass roots.”

That’s why 2012 can wait.