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GOP Governors Brace for 2006 Election Fight

Times Staff Writer

Political fallout from corruption scandals and the Iraq war cast a pall over a gathering of Republican governors in Carlsbad, Calif., on Thursday as GOP strategists and leaders acknowledged the party faced a tough climate for its 2006 campaigns.

“You’d have to be really disconnected from reality to not see and admit that Republicans nationally have gone through a tough patch here the last six or eight months,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. “We should just acknowledge that.”

Still, Pawlenty and other governors emphasized that voters ultimately would judge candidates as individuals and disregard broader concerns about how Republicans have run the White House and Congress. They also expressed hope that Republicans’ worst misfortunes were behind them.

“What the political landscape looks to be right now will probably be very, very different a year from now,” Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said.

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In a fluke, however, the party’s woes were symbolized in the setting of the annual GOP governors’ conference: a golf resort in the congressional district of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Rancho Santa Fe Republican who resigned Monday after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes.

Cunningham’s admission added to troubles that Republicans already faced from the indictments of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay; I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff; and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Republican governors also heard blunt talk from strategists on the difficulties facing them next year, when voters will choose 36 governors at the same time as the midterm congressional elections. GOP strategist Mike Murphy said voters might try to punish the unpopular president by voting against his Republican allies.

“You’ve got to have your own identity, and be really good, and really loud, or you could be a part of that,” Murphy told the governors, adding: “Federally, it could be really bad.”

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Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman played down the effect the scandals -- and related investigations that could produce more indictments -- might have on the 2006 elections.

“What the American people care about is what their individual member of Congress, their senator, their governor did,” and whether each has worked to improve the lives of Americans, Mehlman told reporters at the conference. Despite GOP setbacks, he suggested that Democrats were making no better impression on the public than Republicans were.

“At the same time that we’re having a challenging environment, they’re having a more challenging environment,” he said.

In a speech to the governors, Mehlman also accused Democrats of sending mixed messages on Iraq by attacking President Bush when they seemed to be “in fundamental agreement” with his war policy.

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“Are the Democrat attacks designed to help us win the war on terror, or are they designed to help them win the next election?” he asked.

Among those he singled out was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He criticized her endorsement Wednesday of a plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within six months, saying the plan would result in U.S. defeat.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly called Mehlman’s remarks “the typical Republican line.”

“Democrats recognize we need an exit strategy,” he said. “We need a clear plan for victory, and we don’t have that.”

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has declined to appear with Bush during the president’s last two visits to California, did not appear in public with his fellow Republican governors. Instead, he planned to speak to them privately Thursday at a reception.

Schwarzenegger, who named a Democrat on Wednesday as his new chief of staff, has tried to distance himself from Bush as he prepares to seek reelection next year in a state that has largely shunned the GOP.

But other governors seeking reelection in 2006, including Pawlenty and Linda Lingle of Hawaii, said they would be glad to campaign with Bush.

“It would be disingenuous for Republicans to try to run away from the Republican president,” Pawlenty said. “People can see through that.”

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