GOP turns to its governors for 'new,' pragmatic leaders House losses make them the big players in presidential race

November 17, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republican governors are sending a message to their leaderless party: Follow us.

Hailed as models of success in their own states, the "new Republican" governors are suddenly being embraced by GOP officials as the salvation of a party that got the wind knocked out of it on Election Day.

This week, at the first post-election party gathering, the governors will showcase their popularity, talk up their pragmatic conservatism, and try to take a more active hand in steering the GOP's future.

"The Republican governors are the most popular, influential and powerful people in our party," says Haley Barbour, a former national Republican chairman, adding that they are key to the party's chances of regaining the White House in 2000.

With a strong economy at their backs, most incumbent Republican governors sailed to easy re-election victories this month.

Unlike congressional Republicans, GOP governors are generally regarded as moderates or moderate conservatives in touch with the needs of ordinary people.

While holding the line on taxes and cracking down on crime, they've also been willing to open the spigot for more spending on education and other priorities in their states.

But Republican strategists say it won't be easy for the governors to help draft a national agenda, much less patch up their fractured party.

"First of all, governors are independent operators," said Tom Rath, a Republican committeeman from New Hampshire. "It wouldn't be realistic to expect them to speak with a single voice."

Most governors have gained success by solving local problems, he notes, rather than addressing national concerns.

"It's tough for the governors to set the Republican tone in Congress," says Neil Newhouse, a Republican consultant. "That's trying to fit a round peg into a square hole."

But congressional Republicans have fallen into disfavor with the public after bungling the Clinton impeachment matter and failing to convey a positive message, and the state leaders are being pushed forward in an effort to revitalize the party's image.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who is taking a prominent role in that effort, says "the very successful Republican governors need to be a part of setting the agenda, as well as delivering the message" for the party.

Among the issues on which the governors would like to reach a consensus with Republicans in Congress: education, environmental cleanup and crime.

Even though most Republican governors are "pretty conservative," Ridge explains, "we have to apply our philosophy differently."

Govern from the center

Governors, must govern from the ideological center and consistently reach out to a broad cross-section of the public.

The Pennsylvania governor, who served 12 years in the House, says Republicans in Washington should take a look at the election returns. Republican governors "didn't just win; they won by huge margins," says Ridge, who was re-elected by a better than 2-to-1 vote.

Most of the popular Republican governors have championed reforms in education and played a key role in overhauling the welfare system. They have also skirted many of the social issues, such as abortion, that divide the party and allow critics to portray Republicans as intolerant.

Perhaps most important, they have benefited from a strong economy, which has allowed them to cut taxes while spending more on schools, roads and other projects.

Gov. Bush is front-runner

From the ranks of governors come many of the party's brightest stars, starting with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2000.

Younger brother Jeb Bush, Florida's governor-elect, will make his national debut at the Republican governors meeting, which starts tonight in New Orleans.

The Bush brothers will be joined by more established governors, including Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, Ridge of Pennsylvania and George E. Pataki of New York, all of whom were re-elected this month by lopsided margins.

Nationally, Republican governors will control eight of the nine largest states next year.

Roughly seven of every 10 Americans live in the 31 states that will have Republican governors.

In Washington, the loss of five House seats defied expectations of GOP gains and sent Republicans into an uproar. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced out, and other party leaders could be dumped later this week.

That turmoil has largely overshadowed equally disappointing results in state elections, where Republicans had been expected to gain two or three governorships. Instead, the party lost ground.

The only incumbent governors who were defeated were Republicans.

In California, the most populous state, a Democrat was elected governor for the first time in 20 years. Overall, Republicans wound up with one less governorship, after Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura won in Minnesota.

The results of the election weren't lost on those planning this week's governor's conference.

Agenda already shifting

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