As Republicans look to rebuild, governors could guide a Grand New Party

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

The congressional wing of the Republican Party remains front and center as its members battle President Obama and the Democrats over health care, financial regulatory reform, climate change and just about every other domestic issue. But it is increasingly clear that the future of the GOP rests in the hands of the Republican governors.

The ranks of the Republican governors and former governors include savvy older pros, some celebrities, the biggest crop of prospective 2012 presidential candidates, bright young leaders on the rise and the possibility of enhancements to their ranks after the 2010 midterm elections that will draw even more attention to their work in the states.

The last time Republicans rose from the ashes, the public face of their restoration to power was Newt Gingrich, the flame-throwing speaker of the House who himself eventually flamed out. But the intellectual ballast came from the ranks of the governors, who already had proved to be the policy innovators.

The congressional ranks today include any number of politicians with talent and skills, but no one comparable to Gingrich. That makes it all the more likely that, if Republicans win a considerable number of seats in 2010, they will rely even more on governors to provide the policy and political leadership necessary to make the party competitive once again in a presidential election.

Haley Barbour is the one thread of continuity between the Republicans' restoration of 1994 and their comeback hopes in 2010. Then he was chairman of the Republican National Committee; today he is in his second term as governor of Mississippi and is chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

In 1993-94, he was a shrewd but mostly behind-the-scenes player to Gingrich's out-front leadership role in the midterm elections that drove Democrats from power. Today, he is front and center as a spokesman, strategist, fundraiser and counselor, looked to by congressional leaders and other governors for leadership in challenging the Democrats. They do not underestimate him as a formidable adversary.

The other older pro is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He is the northern wing of the axis of experience the Republicans have within the gubernatorial ranks. Like Barbour, he is a former White House political director. Like Barbour, he is well-grounded in policy, having served as budget director in President George W. Bush's White House.

Daniels has been a highly successful governor who has kept focused on his state's economic problems. He is a plain-spoken conservative who has been outspoken about his party's problems. Republicans, he argues, must earn back the public's trust, and in Indiana he has provided a model for his party of how to go about doing that.

If Barbour and Daniels form the ranks of old pros, there are young pros rising within the ranks. The youngest is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been on a fast track all his adult life. He had a terrible introduction to the nation this year when he was picked to give the GOP response to Obama's first speech as president to a joint session of Congress.

But appearances can be deceiving. Jindal has a considerable intellect and a command of many of the policy issues that will be front and center in the next few years, including health care and energy. Whether he can prove himself on a national stage still isn't known, but he could give Republicans fresh ideas and a platform from which to test them.

Farther north is Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is finishing his second term as governor while still in his late 40s. He is a conservative from a blue-collar family and narrowly won two tough elections in a state partial to Democrats. He has his eyes on a run for president in 2012.

Former Republican governors retain national followings. One needs to look no further than the New York Times best-seller list to be reminded of that. Sarah Palin tops the list with her book, "Going Rogue," and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is on the list with his book, "A Simple Christmas." In March, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will test his book-selling skills with "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness."

Palin, Huckabee and Romney are all prospective candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. All three carry baggage from their 2008 candidacies, and Huckabee has been badly damaged of late for granting clemency in 1990 to Maurice Clemmons, who shot and killed four police officers in Washington last month before being killed.

But one or more of them likely will become a serious contender for the 2012 nomination. Palin gives authentic voice to the anti-Washington grievances and resentments that threaten the Democrats. Romney, a successful businessman before turning to politics, could be well positioned to speak to the country's economic problems.

Republicans control governorships in the two most populous states. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, still the biggest celebrity in the GOP ranks, is on his way out of office next year after a tumultuous tenure in Sacramento. He embodies the vanishing model of fiscal conservative and social moderate that some Republicans think must be part of their future.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry is hoping to add another four years to the 10 he has already served by defeating Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in their nasty primary, then winning another term in November. Over the past year, he has emerged as another leader in the anti-Washington movement, with talk of secession that has made him the darling of many conservatives.

By this time next year, Republicans may have new governors in some of the nation's biggest states. GOP leaders are bullish about the prospects of state attorney general Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell is term-limited. They see John Kasich, the former chairman of the House Budget Committee, as a threat to Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in Ohio. In California, Republicans have a three-way primary underway with the winner likely to face Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, the former governor and current attorney general, in November. Former eBay chairman Meg Whitman is the best known among the GOP contenders and a potential national figure if she gets elected.

All of these are reasons Republicans will be looking to the states as they continue rebuilding.

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