NEW ORLEANS — As Republicans gather in this conservative bastion to hear from the party's presidential candidates, they'll also be sending a not-so-subtle message to President Barack Obama — the South is GOP territory.

No fewer than five GOP hopefuls were appearing at the four-day Republican Leadership Conference, planning to introduce themselves to activists, operatives and donors who have not yet rallied behind a candidate in the volatile primary race. And from the early moments, it was clear any criticism of Obama would earn applause.

"He is a natural secular European socialist," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign imploded last week when his top advisers resigned. "He is the opposite of freedom."

Among others planning to speak from the growing presidential field: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced her candidacy Monday. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is mulling a bid, is on tap for Saturday.

Notably absent: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads in early national polls; aides blamed scheduling conflicts even though the event has been months in the making. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republicans' 2008 vice presidential nominee who is considering running for the top job, also was not scheduled to attend. And former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty planned to campaign in Iowa.