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Republican Governors Meet, Glumly
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who took over the Republican National Committee under similarly dim circumstances after President Bill Clinton's 1992 election, tried to temper the downbeat assessments with some history.
He pointed out that only once since World War II has a party won a third consecutive presidential term. He noted President Bush's unpopularity and the "financial system's cataclysm" and said, all things considered, he thought McCain "got a pretty good vote." He noted the dark days that followed Watergate. "I have looked down at the grave of the Republican Party, and this ain't it," he said.
Others noted that after Clinton's victory in 1992, Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.
That, however, was about it for happy talk.
Pollster and communications guru Frank Luntz detailed the party's problems with voters 18 to 29 years old and said Obama's campaign was far ahead of McCain's in using new media to reach those voters.
"He's got 10 million e-mail names," Luntz said of Obama. He then held up a BlackBerry and added: "Our candidate doesn't know how to use this."
Jindal, an Indian American and one of the party's brightest hopes for ethnic outreach, said Republicans have failed to inspire. "We should stand for the American dream," he said.
He blamed the administration and congressional leaders for cutting taxes without cutting spending and for not offering solutions besides "the other side's worse," and he said the party must "stop making excuses for corruption." He named Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has been convicted of unlawfully accepting gifts but whose reelection race is very tight.
Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska was ready to take Jindal up on the challenge. "I think he ought to resign today," Heineman said of Stevens, and asked his fellow governors if they wanted to make a similar statement. "Do we have the courage to do that?"
There was silence at the table.
Criticism came from others as well. Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, a close McCain adviser, said, "Republicans are losing market share at an alarming rate," mentioning young voters and Hispanics as particular concerns. If there were such losses at a corporation, she said, "heads would roll."
Although some polling at the end of the campaign suggested Palin was a drag on the ticket, her fellow governors treated any question about her gingerly. They praised her for energizing the base, and moved quickly to extol Obama's speechmaking skills and his extraordinary fundraising advantage.
As for the way back, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said the governors have a chance to show how to apply Republican principles of fiscal conservatism and smaller government to practical problems. He said they should concentrate on "issues that really matter" to voters, such as education, energy, the environment and health care.
Pawlenty said that although Republicans idolize Ronald Reagan, some would balk at the compromises he made. "One of the things that gets glossed over is his pragmatism," he said. "He got stuff done, and he compromised to do it."
Research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.