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GOP tries to find the road back

Governors meet in Miami to reflect on the Nov. 4 losses. For some, it's an early audition for 2012.

November 14, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Barabak is a Times staff writer.

MIAMI — 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.

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