GOP tries to find the road back

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Barabak is a Times staff writer.

With Barack Obama busy building his administration, Republicans gathered Thursday to discuss ways to make him a one-term president and turn back a rising Democratic tide. There was plenty of disagreement over how to do that.

The setting was a gloomy meeting of the Republican Governors Assn., which drew 17 of the party’s state executives. Not incidentally, it also served as an early audition for the 2012 election, just about 1,450 days away.

Half a dozen or so White House prospects, led by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, circulated at a luxury hotel alongside choppy Biscayne Bay, giving interviews, shaking hands, delivering speeches and offering varied analyses on the meaning of last week’s election.


In one camp were the likes of Haley Barbour, Mississippi governor and longtime GOP strategist, who recalled the Republican renaissance that followed Watergate, then Bill Clinton’s 1992 election.

“I have seen a lot worse, folks,” Barbour told an audience of about 150 governors, political aides and party benefactors. “I actually think McCain got a tremendous vote.”

By this accounting, the GOP’s biggest problems on Nov. 4 were the dead weight of a prolonged war, an unpopular president and an economic crisis exploding weeks before election day. (A few blamed the messenger. “In terms of delivery, Stevie Wonder reads a teleprompter better than John McCain,” strategist Frank Luntz said.)

Others, however, see a much graver problem. They say the party has failed to change with technology, allowing Democrats to rule the Internet; has betrayed core principles such as fiscal prudence; and has lost its standing with a frightening number of voter groups.

“The Republican Party’s going to need more than a comb-over,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told reporters after Barbour spoke.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. agreed. “I’m not one who buys the idea that it’s just an aberration,” he said.


There were other differences, which are likely to shape the eventual fight for the Republican nomination.

During Wednesday’s opening lunch, Pawlenty -- a finalist to join McCain on the GOP ticket -- dismissed one of Palin’s signature lines by calling for an expansive approach to energy development.

“ ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ is not, by itself, an energy policy,” Pawlenty said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking to reporters, cited the passage of measures banning same-sex marriage in California, Arizona and Florida as proof “that conservative values still matter to the American people.”

“They’re worthy of our party’s attention, commitment. Our effort,” Perry said.

But Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has charted a more moderate course, warned against focusing too much on divisive social policy.

“Those issues are very important, but there are a lot of issues people care deeply about that affect their lives in a real way every single day,” Crist told reporters after he gave Thursday night’s banquet speech. He had supported the same-sex marriage ban but declined to campaign on its behalf. “Right now, with this economy, there’s no question in my mind those are pocketbook issues.”

Overall, the mood of the meeting was summarized, mordantly, at one of the opening sessions. “I understand how Dr. Kevorkian feels at an AARP convention,” Luntz told the audience.


The news for Republicans on Nov. 4 was almost unremittingly bleak. The party suffered its worst back-to-back election defeats since the Great Depression, surrendering not just the White House and broad swaths of once-loyal GOP turf but also losing at least 26 seats in Congress.

Just a third of voters identified themselves as Republican, according to exit polls, the lowest proportion since 1986. (Forty percent identified themselves as Democrats.) Worse, from the GOP’s perspective, McCain lost overwhelmingly among Latinos and voters age 18 to 29, two groups that will probably gain influence in elections to come.

“We cannot be a majority governing party when we essentially cannot compete in the Northeast. We are losing our ability to compete in Great Lake states; we cannot compete on the West Coast,” Pawlenty said in his speech.

A bright spot was the performance of the nation’s Republican governors. Although their ranks will shrink by one in January, to 21, no GOP incumbent was defeated. Finding solace where they could, party leaders gave a plum speaking slot to Luis G. Fortuno, who will become Puerto Rico’s first Republican governor since 1968; “a powerful message,” Perry said.

There is perpetual tension between state executives, who see themselves as closest to the people they represent, and their elected counterparts in Washington. The animus was all the more pronounced in Miami, given the wreckage the party faces.

“Americans have lost confidence in national Republican leaders after years of pork-barrel spending and special interests calling the shots,” said Perry, chairman of the governors group. “The election results at the federal level were no surprise to those of us at the state level who have managed to avoid that D.C. culture.”


Given those sentiments, it is little wonder that one speaker after another declared that the next president was seated somewhere in their midst -- though interested parties were coy enough to avoid touting themselves.

“Let the pundits go on with their idle talk about the next election, what happens in 2012,” said Palin, who delivered Thursday’s keynote address. “Our concern should be about our states . . . and on issues like taxes and energy and healthcare, immigration, education.”

Palin made only a few appearances at the meeting in between national TV interviews, but still managed to overshadow her peers. She attracted more than two dozen TV cameras and 100-plus reporters for a news conference Thursday morning, where 12 fellow governors stood on stage as a silent backdrop.

Palin repeatedly extolled the governors organization. She then answered four questions, offering more praise for the group, before the session was abruptly cut off.




The 2012 talk is already starting

Republican governors are in Miami this week to pick over the wreckage of Nov. 4. For a handful, the meeting is a chance to test the waters for a 2012 presidential run. Here are five GOP governors to watch. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did not attend the three-day gathering, but his reelection has some observers talking up his prospects.




Elected: 2006, 52% of the vote. He faces reelection in 2010.

Major achievements: Imposed strict air pollution standards and pursued policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Pushed legislation to expand the availability and affordability of healthcare. Has pursued bipartisanship and fostered a less combative atmosphere in the Capitol. Worked to open state government to greater media and public scrutiny.

Political outlook: If the GOP moves more toward the middle, Crist could be the party’s centrist standard- bearer. But he first needs to win reelection and ease hard feelings among some fellow Republicans because John McCain lost Florida.




Elected: Reelected on Nov. 4, 58% of the vote.

Major achievements: Passed major property tax relief and a measure to provide healthcare to 200,000 low-income residents by raising the cigarette tax. Also passed legislation to help fund full-day kindergarten and privatize state highway operations. Pushed the state to adopt daylight saving time, a move praised by employers but criticized by many residents.

Political outlook: Although he is a hero to the economically conservative wing of the Republican Party, it remains to be seen whether privatization and a push for less government holds much appeal to a broader audience in a time of economic turmoil, which many blame on insufficient oversight of Wall Street and capitalist buccaneers.




Elected: 2007, 54% of the vote.

Major achievements: Passed ethics legislation and cut business and personal taxes. Ushered in legislation giving teachers more control over classroom discipline and creating tougher penalties for sex offenders. Credited with overseeing a smooth evacuation before Hurricane Gustav in August.

Political outlook: A living embodiment of the American Dream, the 37-year-old son of Indian immigrants looks like no other Republican on the national scene, which could be an asset as the party strives to remake its image and reach out to minorities and young people. But running for president is unlike anything Jindal has attempted. Ask Sarah Palin how tough a national campaign can be.





Elected: 2006, 48.3% of the vote. Faces reelection in 2010.

Major achievements: Overhaul of Alaska’s ethics law and passage of bipartisan legislation to boost state taxes on oil companies. Pushed for development of a natural gas pipeline linking Alaska to the lower 48 states, though questions have arisen about the bidding process and whether the pipeline will be finished.

Political outlook: As the GOP vice presidential nominee, she built a strong following among social conservatives but put off many others -- including fellow Republicans -- and proved a drag on running mate John McCain. Apart from governing Alaska, she will probably have to spend the next several years on a rehabilitation effort, which began shakily at this week’s governors meeting.




Elected: Reelected 2006, 47% of the vote.

Major achievements: Enacted tougher penalties for methamphetamine manufacturing and sexual predators. Signed into law an abortion waiting period and concealed-weapons law. Established several tax-free zones in distressed areas to spur job growth. Backed rules requiring utilities to use more alternative fuels. Has promoted drug importation from Canada as a way to reduce prescription prices.

Political outlook: After making McCain’s short list for vice president, Pawlenty barely suppressed his disappointment at being passed over. Ambitious and articulate, he has a blue-collar background that’s a plus as the party works to expand. He has struggled for support in Democratic-leaning Minnesota. Nationally, GOP voters may be more receptive.


Sources: Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak and Times special correspondent DeeDee Correll