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Pragmatic GOP Governors Poised to Broaden Party's Appeal

Ideology takes a back seat in formula for success. Here's a preview of November races.

July 21, 1998|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — The headlines after the 1994 midterm elections focused on the Republican seizure of Capitol Hill. Almost overlooked was that voters also had given the party a healthy majority of the nation's governors for the first time in decades.

Now, the approach of the 1998 midterm election finds a transformed GOP perspective. After the fizzle of the much-heralded conservative revolution, Republicans have struggled just to hold their own in Congress. But most GOP governors--who total 32--are going strong. And some analysts see the problem-solving approach that these chief executives bring to politics--in contrast with the ideological fulminations of their congressional colleagues--as the GOP's best chance to achieve its long-cherished goal of becoming the nation's majority party.

"If we're England, they're the Navy," claims Republican consultant Mike Murphy, referring to the military cornerstone of the British Empire. The GOP governors, Murphy adds, "are the cutting edge of our party, our most successful politicians."

That proposition will be tested this November in 36 gubernatorial elections around the country, 24 of them in states now held by the GOP. Republicans can take heart from polls and fund-raising data that suggest they will be able to hold most of the gubernatorial seats they won in 1994.

The outcome of these clashes is laden with significance for both parties. After the 2000 census, governors will play a major role in deciding the subsequent struggles over reapportionment of state congressional districts.

"If you have a House of Representatives that's within 10 or 15 seats either way, the 1998 governors' elections are liable to decide who controls the House" in the early part of the next century, said consultant Tom O'Donnell, media advisor to the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Gray Davis in California.

Indeed, with California home to 52 House seats (and perhaps more after the census), the redistricting issue causes Republican pollster Bill McInturff to term Davis' battle with GOP opponent Dan Lungren as the "most important race in the country" this year.

With Republicans in charge of statehouses in eight of the 10 most populous states--all except Florida and Georgia--party leaders like to brag that 80% of the nation lives under GOP rule.

Of course, the Republican governors, like nearly every other incumbent in every office, have benefited from the surging economy. But analysts said that most of the GOP governors also have helped themselves by adopting a pragmatic approach to public policy.

By melding moderation on social issues with fiscal conservatism, these governors have found "a winning formula," said the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, a specialist on state politics. "And when national Republicans adopt that formula, they will have a real shot at the presidency."

Even the party's ideological prophets, such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, pay tribute to the GOP governors. "I stand here, in a sense, as a student of the governors," Gingrich told an assemblage of statehouse victors right after the 1994 election. "It was the Republican governors across the country who created the framework of experience which we in Congress have to bring to the national level."

There are exceptions to the moderate mold among the GOP governors, notably Alabama's Forrest "Fob" James Jr., who has gained attention for his attempts to promote the conservative Christian agenda. His efforts, however, led to a bruising primary fight last month. Although James won renomination, analysts said that he is vulnerable to a Democratic challenge this November.

In order of size, here's an early look at the gubernatorial races in nine of the 10 biggest states (all except New Jersey, where Republican Christine Todd Whitman won reelection last year).

CALIFORNIA--Davis, the lieutenant governor, and Lungren, the attorney general, square off in a contest that both sides expect to go down to the wire.

Since neither candidate has displayed a flair for swaying the multitudes, their campaigns are expected to concentrate on portraying their foe as unattractively as credibility will permit. Republicans will paint Davis as an inveterate tax-and-spend liberal, whereas Democrats will depict Lungren as an out-of-touch conservative who is lax about enforcing environmental rules and ill-equipped to improve the state's schools.

TEXAS--The tip-off on this contest between incumbent Republican George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Lands Commissioner Gary Mauro, is the objection Mauro's aides raised about a recent poll showing their candidate more than 50 percentage points behind. Not so, they protested, Bush's lead is only 30 points or so.

"If I win, I'll look like a genius," Mauro said. A landslide victory for Bush, the former president's son, would position him as a strong contender for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2000.

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