The 2011 Republican Leadership Conference kicked off Thursday at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans with a sort of appetizer for the red meat coming on Friday (speeches by Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Tea Party favorite Herman Cain and Govs. Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour). Thursday night’s conservative buffet was far more modest, with Newt Gingrich the only potential presidential candidate in a series of speeches by political strategists (the day’s other favorite, Fox News host Mike Huckabee, appeared before the dinner hour).

Much of the audience sat and clapped politely while speaker after speaker addressed topics like organizing by smartphone, “SuperPACs,” stats about the gross domestic product, and general anti-Obama administration rhetoric. Still, there were few familiar faces at the dais: “Who are these people?” asked one woman in the lobby. “I don’t know. I’m only here for Newt,” was the response.

About 7:30 p.m., the crowd rose to its feet as Gingrich entered to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” — probably best known to today’s generation as the song that played over the last scene of The Sopranos. The former Speaker of the House looked a bit tired, but he quickly ingratiated himself with the Louisianans in the crowd by reminding them he graduated from Tulane University (‘71, with a Ph.D. in modern European history). He described the 2012 elections as a chance to “end the 80-year rule of the Left.”

The defection of most of his campaign staff the week before obviously hadn’t quashed Gingrich’s presidential ambitions. “This is going to be a philosophical campaign. It will shock the news media,” he promised. If elected, he said, he would sign “200 executive orders” on the first hour of his first day in office. “I don’t know what they’d all be,” Gingrich said, “but I know the first four. The first eliminates all of the White House ‘czars’ as of that moment.” (Big applause; the crowd wanted no part of czars and czardoms.) The other three: ensuring no U.S. taxpayer would pay for overseas abortions; instating a “conscience provision” that no medical professional would have to perform any procedure that violates his or her religious beliefs; and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That wasn’t all; should he win and the GOP take both houses of Congress, Gingrich said, he would in the first week pass a tax cut that would eventually create 25 million jobs.

In his first week of office, Gingrich added, he would introduce five changes to the tax system: Make permanent the current tax rates; go to zero capital gains taxes; go to a 12.5 percent corporate tax rate; “100 percent expensing for all new equipment”; and “permanently abolish the death tax,” the proposal that got the most applause. He also proposed repealing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was introduced in 2002 with wide bipartisan support in reaction to corporate accounting scandals like Enron, as well as the 2009 Dodd-Frank Act. Gingrich also wants to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with an Environmental Solutions Agency.

“Obama is going to fail in both practice and radicalism,” he said, saying the president was a “national secular humanist socialist.” He went on to spit-roast Obama for being squishy on American exceptionalism (he threw in academics and the press on the squishy pile). “You can’t have centralized power in Washington, because that becomes the rule of bureaucrats,” he said to applause, and shortly thereafter asked the crowd to send him back there. The room gave him a standing ovation.

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