By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008
MIAMI, Oct. 13 -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's star-turn news conference here at the Republican Governors Association meeting quickly got very crowded, as 12 of her colleagues joined her onstage.
It sent an unmistakable message: that if the nation's GOP governors are going to take the lead in their dispirited party, there is going to be more than one voice at the head of the pack.
Palin seemed unperturbed about sharing the wealth, although what had been billed as roughly 20 minutes of questions for the 2008 vice presidential nominee dwindled to four queries, each of which she answered with a version of expressing her happiness to simply be a team player.
"The media likes to focus on us as individuals, but the Republican Governors Association is a group," Palin said. "I'm proud to be a part of this team."
It's a team with an abundance of people volunteering to serve as captain, particularly with no clear front-runner to become the GOP's presidential nominee in 2012.
Palin is the hands-down celebrity in the group, but there are plenty of other governors -- Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, South Carolina's Mark Sanford and Florida's Charlie Crist, to name a few -- who also see a road for themselves to the White House.
The results of last week's elections mean that for the first time in 14 years, Republicans will not control either the White House or Congress. Those gathered here, at least, believe that the path out of what one described as the "wilderness" will be forged by governors.
"I really feel there's a yearning for the Republican leadership you see on this stage," said the association's chairman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "The kind of leadership provided by Republican governors, not necessarily what's been displayed in Washington, D.C."
He bluntly criticized the party led by a fellow Republican from Texas.
"Americans have lost confidence in their national Republican leaders after years of pork-barrel spending and special interests calling the shots in D.C., massive government bailouts," he said. "The election results at the federal level were no surprise to those of us at the state level. The Washington values displayed by our national leaders simply don't reflect the values of the Republican Party."
Perry was effusive in praising Palin and her "unashamed embrace of bedrock conservative principles." But the governors also seemed leery of establishing Palin at the center of their efforts.
According to network exit polls, 60 percent of last week's voters thought Palin lacked the qualifications to become president, while 38 percent said she was qualified. And while she is enormously popular with conservative Republicans, the Washington Post-ABC News poll showed her favorable rating among all voters falling from a high of 59 percent the weekend after the GOP convention to 46 percent just before Election Day -- with an unfavorable rating of 51 percent then.
At a meeting with reporters Wednesday night, a couple of governors hedged when asked if Sen. John McCain had done the right thing in picking Palin.
John Huntsman Jr. of Utah said McCain's instincts "have always served him very well" throughout his career.
And Pawlenty, who was one of the finalists for the No. 2 spot on the ticket, said simply that McCain had said he would pick someone ready to be president, "and we're going to have to defer to his judgment and that process."
Still, there is no misapprehension among the governors that far fewer cameras would have been aimed at the podium Thursday if Palin were not onstage.
After a week of television interviews in which she defended herself against anonymous charges from within the McCain campaign that she was ill-prepared and a drag on the ticket, Palin told reporters she had no interest in rehashing the campaign.
Asked why she had held no news conferences during the election season, she responded, "I don't even want to talk about strategy within a campaign that's over."
Later she gave a casual and at times humorous valedictory to her colleagues about the race and their shared future.
She said she had "managed to fill up the time" since she had last met with them.
"I had a baby, I did some traveling, I very briefly expanded my wardrobe, I made a few speeches, I met a few VIPs, including those who really impact society, like Tina Fey," Palin said. "Aside from that, it was the same-ol', same-ol'."
Afterward, Palin told her colleagues the GOP ticket's loss was a "hard and honorable defeat" and she took pride that "tens of millions of Americans shared our convictions."
"But for us, it was not our time, it was not our moment," she said.
She wished President-elect Barack Obama well and called his election "a shining moment in American history."
"Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and our country," she said.
While in her television interviews Palin has declined to rule out a presidential run in 2012 -- who knows what doors God might open, she has said -- she and others here said the most immediate political events will be in 2010, with midterm elections and 36 gubernatorial races.
The group was repeatedly reminded that the party suffered a similar loss in 1992, when President Bill Clinton was elected, and that then-Rep. Newt Gingrich and others fashioned a resurgence that gave Republicans control of Congress in 1994.
Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) told the group that voters have not changed their ideology -- but they have stopped trusting Republicans.
"I believe the truth is, at the federal level, in 2006 and 2008, we did not lose our governing majority, we lost our way," Pence said. "The American people didn't walk away from the Contract with America, they decided we did."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.