Can Republican Governors Rebuild Their Party?

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Joe Raedle / Getty

Florida governor Charlie Crist at Howley's Restaurant and Diner in West Palm Beach

Despite his sunny disposition, you'd think Charlie Crist would be feeling a bit down right now. Florida's Republican governor just watched a northern Democrat, Barack Obama, win the Sunshine State in a presidential election for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt won it in 1944. Obama also took Pinellas County, which includes Crist's hometown of St. Petersburg. And Obama only lost nearby Sarasota County — which since 1944 hasn't fallen to any kind of Democrat, Yankee or otherwise — by a mere 237 votes.

Certainly Crist isn't happy about John McCain's loss in Florida, especially since he endorsed McCain in the state's primary. But when Crist convenes the Republican Governors Association conference on Wednesday, which is being held in Miami this year, he won't be quite the damaged political goods that many McCain supporters are trying to paint him as. In fact, Crist and other bipartisan Republican governors may well be the model for how the GOP should rebuild itself after the crippling losses of both 2006 and 2008. (See pictures of John McCain's campaign farewell.)

Moderates like Crist have long urged Republicans to adopt a more upbeat offensive in the 21st century, especially during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He and many of his statehouse peers contend that McCain flamed out in Florida and the nation in large part because his campaign followed a negative attack plan. "Right now, people want commonsense answers to problems that are not always ideologically based," Crist told TIME last week. "When it comes to pocketbook issues, I think they want the Florida way, a more bipartisan approach that aims for the sweet spot between hard right and hard left."

Just as more centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton emerged in the wake of Ronald Reagan's triumphs, more pragmatic Republicans like Crist, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and even conservative Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal will likely be the phoenixes that rise from the GOP ashes of 2008. (None, however, will yet say if they plan to mount their own presidential bids in 2012.) As a result, says Leslie Lenkowsky, a public affairs professor at Indiana University who served with Daniels in the Bush Administration, "the future of the Republican Party is going to be decided at the statehouses."

The fact that my red home state of Indiana went blue for Obama while it re-elected Daniels is a welcome signal that Hoosiers are reviving the saner, compromise-friendly politics I grew up with, including Lincolnesque Republicans like Senator Richard Lugar and Rooseveltian Democrats like former Congressman Lee Hamilton. They were civil-tongued consensus builders who presided over a pre–Lee Atwater, pre– age, before the two parties let their wing nuts become their linchpins.

Not that that is a unanimous opinion. There are many Republicans who think the party has to get back to its more conservative principles of smaller government and social issues rather than try to own the mushy middle ground. For those conservative zealots, Alaska governor and controversial McCain running mate Sarah Palin may be the future of the party — and she'll be in Miami this week as well. GOP watchers are bracing to see whether her rock-star appeal with the party's red-meat base will muffle any trend toward the center — or whether, in her much-rumored desire to be the party's presidential face in 2012, she'll adapt to the new realities.

Even moderate Republicans like Nat Reed, a prominent Florida environmentalist and former assistant Secretary of the Interior, fear Crist and company "are going to have a struggle getting the right wing of the party to concede that the country is only moderately conservative now." But Reed adds that in order to survive — especially if Obama and the Democrats can somehow navigate the country out of the current crisis — the GOP needs to recognize that a growing number of the governors gathered in Miami this week won their statehouses by steering away from the rabid right. In 2005, Crist, then Florida's attorney general, declined to help Governor Jeb Bush and religious conservatives in their crusade to keep Terri Schiavo on life support. The following year, on a platform that ignored the culture wars and focused on bipartisan fixes to Florida's nagging property tax and insurance crises, Crist was elected governor in a landslide. His approval ratings since then — despite his difficulties fixing those problems —have been the highest in the state's history. Crist won more kudos last month when, seeing the unexpectedly epic lines at Florida polling sites, he extended early-voting hours — even though he knew McCain and the GOP were getting hammered by early voters.

Many McCain backers like to say that the Republican nominee underperformed in Florida not because his message was off but because Crist didn't support him enough. But the evidence doesn't point to that. After all, Crist refused to campaign for an anti-gay-marriage amendment to Florida's constitution, yet it passed by a wide margin last week. So was it really Crist's lack of enthusiasm for the McCain campaign that sank the Arizona Senator in Florida — or was it the fact that the peninsula's conservative Republican base spent so much time, money and effort on one of its pet issues that it ended up neglecting the larger McCain effort? Daniels (who declined to be interviewed for this article) begged off stumping for a similar marriage amendment in Indiana. It died in the state legislature; but this fall, if you drove up and down Indianapolis' main avenue, Meridian Street, you saw lawn after lawn sporting signs for both Obama and "My Man Mitch," largely because Daniels has prioritized issues like broadening health-care coverage (and even raising some taxes) over demonizing gays and immigrants. Daniels also notably didn't make much time in his schedule for Palin's rallies in his home state in October.

Which isn't to say that these Republican governors aren't Republicans. True, neo-GOP guvs like Schwarzenegger aren't shy about embracing traditionally liberal causes like environmentalism and, in the Governator's case, gay marriage. But Lenkowsky, who headed the Corporation for National and Community Service partnership under President Bush, says it would be wrong to assume that chief execs like Daniels aren't acting "from the standpoint of conservative principles." For Daniels, who was President Bush's budget director before becoming Indiana's governor in 2005 — and who erroneously argued that the Iraq war wouldn't become a crippling U.S. expense — "the big concerns still include reducing the size of the budget, taxes, his privatization of the [Indiana toll road] system," says Lenkowsky. What sets these GOP leaders apart, he suggests, is their adherence to another principle: tolerance. "Mitch spends an awful lot of his time listening," says Lenkowsky. "A good leader has a way of reconciling his or her ideology with other points of view."

If Crist and his fellow Republican governors really can instill or revive a less-dogmatic culture inside the GOP, then an equally important question is whether that will in turn influence a now dominant Democratic Party in Washington. Central to Obama's cross-party appeal was his clarion call to end America's corrosive red-blue polarization. Republican pols like Crist may take that ideal even more seriously than the hyperpartisan likes of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. It's a long shot, but a more centrist-minded GOP could be the country's best guarantor against the Democrats indulging their own more extremist urges.

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