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At gathering, Republican governors look to rebrand their party

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 11:08 PM

SAN DIEGO - There's nothing subtle about the goal at the Republican Governors Association meeting that began here Wednesday - it's nothing less than an effort to start rebranding a party long known as a bastion of white men.

Across the country two weeks ago, voters began to change the face of the Republican Party, though with little help from minority voters. The midterm elections brought to power the nation's first female Hispanic governor (New Mexico's Susana Martinez) and first female Indian American governor (South Carolina's Nikki Haley). In addition, voters in Nevada elected Brian Sandoval, who is Hispanic, as their new governor, while Oklahomans elected a female chief executive, Mary Fallin.

Their victories came despite the fact that Latino voters solidly backed Democratic candidates in virtually every race in the country and that women generally voted in smaller numbers than men for Republican candidates in competitive races.

Republicans are eager to shed their image as the party of white men. Whatever trouble their candidates still have in attracting the votes of women and minorities, the GOP's gubernatorial ranks next year will include four women, two Indian Americans and two Hispanics - significantly more diverse than in the past. Two female governors, Hawaii's Linda Lingle and Connecticut's M. Jodi Rell, will be leaving, however.

The annual RGA meeting has attracted a huge crowd this year, estimated at about 800 people. It's a testament to the breadth of the party's victories two weeks ago and the significance that governors and Republican state legislators will now play in setting an agenda in counterpoint to President Obama.

Presidential politics will also form part of the backdrop of the meeting. Three governors, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, the outgoing RGA chairman; Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing RGA vice chairman; and Indiana's Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. are all eyeing presidential campaigns in 2012.

Several others who will be in attendance have been mentioned as possible presidential or vice presidential candidates, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is Indian American. Both have said they are not running in 2012. Another possible presidential candidate, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, will participate in a panel discussion Thursday.

Perry and Jindal both have new books on the market. Perry's attacks the federal government and calls for a return of power to the states. Jindal's attacks Washington and in particular Obama for the way he dealt with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Early next year, Pawlenty will have his own book to promote, a possible last step before declaring his candidacy for the 2012 GOP nomination.

The main purpose of the meeting this week is to celebrate the gains the party made at the state level two weeks ago. It will be the RGA's biggest victory party since the 1994 landslide.

Next January, Republicans will control 29 governor's mansions, including in the presidential battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. GOP governors are determined to establish themselves as models of conservative governance, no matter what problems congressional Republicans may encounter in trying to work their will against Obama and the Senate Democratic majority.

Those are the topics for public discussion. Behind the scenes, newly elected governors will be seeking advice of their elders; corporate and other contributors will rub shoulders with those in power; and staffs will begin more intensive discussions about areas where the states can cooperate to check Washington's power on everything from health care to education.

The first order of business will be a panel discussion titled "The New Face of the GOP." The session will feature Martinez, Sandoval and Haley, along with Ohio governor-elect John Kasich and Pennsylvania governor-elect Tom Corbett.

Cracking the Hispanic vote has been a high priority for Republicans for more than two decades. Only rarely have GOP candidates done well with the fastest-growing segment of the population. Former president George W. Bush won about half the Hispanic vote in Texas in his gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1998. This year, Perry won only about 40 percent, according to exit polls. Sandoval did no better in his race, despite his heritage.

In Florida, governor-elect Rick Scott captured 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, but many of those voters are Cuban Americans, who long have favored Republicans over Democrats. In the Senate contest there, Republican Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, won 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in a three-way race.

Republicans made important gains in the midterm elections, enough to notably diversify their ranks at the top. Whether they can attract the support of those minority voters in the future will be one of the questions they will try to answer here over the next few days.

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