Palin, Other GOP Governors Vie For 2012 Limelight

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Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at the Republican Governors Assocation annual conference in Miami. i

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks Thursday during the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at the Republican Governors Assocation annual conference in Miami.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks Thursday during the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The future of the Republican Party is on display this week in Miami, where the Republican Governors Association Annual Conference is taking place.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke there Thursday — as did several other GOP up-and-comers.

The conference comes at a critical time for the party, just nine days after its worst loss in decades. This is the first time in 14 years that Republicans do not control the White House, the House or the Senate. This, in part, helps explain why an event that usually attracts a few dozen political reporters drew at least 200 this year.

The other draw was Thursday's featured speaker, Palin, who kicked off her speech at the annual fall meeting with a joke.

"It hasn't been that long since we last gathered," she said. "And I don't know about you, but I managed to fill up the time. I had a baby. I did some traveling. I very briefly expanded my wardrobe."

One reason for the media interest, of course, involves Palin's future. She fueled speculation about her plans during several recent interviews in which she suggested that she would consider a run for the White House in 2012.

She's not alone. You could hardly turn around this week without running into someone who is being touted as a possible Republican presidential candidate, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Although Palin said she was done looking back at the last presidential campaign, she is not yet ready to begin looking at the next one.

"We're focused on the future, and the future for us is not that 2012 presidential race," she said. "It's next year and our next budgets and the next reforms in our states, and it's 2010 when we'll have 36 governors' positions open across the U.S."

Palin's Remarks

Palin also seemed to be trying to put some of the last campaign's harsh rhetoric behind her.

She had kind words for President-elect Barack Obama, saying that she wished him well and that his election was "a shining moment in American history."

But Palin also said that if the Democratic-controlled Congress or the White House overreached in areas such as taxes, health care or energy policy, it would be up to Republican governors to keep them in line.

That's a point on which South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford agreed. It's a new era for the GOP, he said, and it will be up to the states to put the party's core principles — lower taxes, less government, state's rights and strong defense — into practice.

"I think this is, first of all, going to be a definitional time both within the Congress, within the governorship, within the GOP at large," he said. "And then from a standpoint of advancing policy so that you show a different route, it's going to be on the forefront of the governors' tables and really the governors' responsibility."

Some governors such as Pawlenty and Utah's Jon Huntsman called for retooling the Republican Party to appeal to younger voters, Hispanics and African-Americans.

But Palin and other conservatives have a different focus. They believe the way back for the GOP is not to change its message but to return to its core principles. The party has gone astray, Palin said, and she places the blame on Republican leaders in Washington.

Leaders there "spent public money in disregard of the public interest, just like the opponents they used to criticize," she said. "They got too comfortable in power. Maybe they forgot why they were sent to Washington and who they were sent to serve."

It was a theme picked up on by other governors. As Rick Perry of Texas put it, Republicans lost the election because of "D.C. values displayed by leaders who don't reflect the party."

Republican Governors Search For Party Rebound

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A week after the GOP's worst electoral loss in decades, Republican governors are gathering in Miami this week for some serious soul-searching.

Not only did Barack Obama rewrite the electoral map, but congressional Democrats also picked up more than 20 house seats in their second straight election — a feat not accomplished since the 1930s.

So, if ever a gathering needed a Pollyanna, this week's meeting of the Republican Governors Association is it. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour filled that role.

"I have looked down in the grave for the Republican Party, and this ain't it," he said.

Barbour recalled the post-Watergate era, when at one point during the 1976 campaign, sitting president Gerald Ford trailed Democrat Jimmy Carter by 32 points.

"I have seen a lot worse, folks," Barbour said. "I can remember when Mary Louise Smith, the party chairman, literally appointed a committee about whether we should change the name of the party."

Within the Republican Party, governors have more reason to be happy than most. No sitting Republican governors were defeated on Election Day.

Some Republican governors, like Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Utah's Jon Huntsman, won by wide margins. And it's among governors that Republicans see some rising stars — people like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal.

At the conference Wednesday in downtown Miami, two main narratives emerged to explain the party's problems. Jindal picked up one of the story lines — that the party has strayed from its principles.

"When the Republican Party is no longer the party of fiscal conservatism, when we start defending spending that we would have rightfully criticized on the other side — whether it's earmarks or growth in discretionary spending or new programs that we never would have tolerated if the other side had proposed it — then clearly, I would argue that we've lost our way, we've lost the reason that we stand as fiscal conservatives."

By getting back to basics — cutting taxes and spending and innovating in areas like education and health care — Jindal and other pragmatists say, the party can rebuild its brand and restore voter trust.

But there's another school of thought — that the GOP is staring into the abyss. That has to do with technology and demographics.

In a presentation to the governors, Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz laid out some stark facts. John McCain won just 32 percent of the youth vote — the lowest margin in history, according to Luntz.

Young people increasingly communicate and get their information over the internet. The Obama campaign understood that and compiled a list of 10 million names and e-mail addresses.

"It makes him and his supporters the most powerful special interest group in all of America," Luntz said of the president-elect. "And 3 million of those people have donated to the campaign. We've never had that situation, where so many people are so active and so engaged, and they can be reached by the stroke of a key."

Luntz later added that "our candidate doesn't know how to use" a BlackBerry.

That paradigm shift is the narrative that Utah's Gov. Huntsman says Republicans must embrace. Otherwise, he says, a party that has trouble reaching Hispanics, women and African-Americans is doomed to permanent minority status.

"And if we're not able to identify the changing demographic in this country and the needs of that changing demographic in terms of the issues that really matter — education and health care and quality of life and jobs — then we're going to lose, and we're going to keep losing big-time," Huntsman said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed that the party's base conservative voters are important but are no longer enough. The challenge, he said, is to modernize the party of Ronald Reagan.

"He's one of my heroes," Pawlenty said. "But Ronald Reagan was president a long time ago. A lot's happened since then. So the challenge for us is, how do you take those principles from the late '70s and '80s and apply them to the circumstances and issue and opportunities of our time?"

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