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Optimistic GOP Governors Want a Kinder, Gentler Approach to 2010

5 years ago
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AUSTIN – Here's what I did not hear at the annual confab of Republican governors held here this week: The words socialist, extremist, or government takeover. With the focus on jobs, jobs and jobs, the only red meat was the Texas barbecue. And by design, there was no Obama-bashing.

The surest sign that leaders of the post-George W. Bush, post-Karl Rove GOP really might feel as optimistic as their talking points sound is that they are not only moving away from the last decade's focus on wedge issues and personal attacks, but are explicitly repudiating them. Rhetorically, at least, they have ditched the whole Rove approach – that the party with the angriest base will have the greater turnout, and thus will win. They see independent voters as the way to win in 2010.

"When Bush became president,'' Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said from the podium, "there was a hardening of partisanship" that worked in the Republicans' favor in '02 and '04, but against them in '06 and '08. He spoke approvingly of voters moving now towards a post-partisan moment in which "people will say 'I vote for the woman, not the party.' ''

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle followed up on that politically correct happy talk: "I hope it does go in a direction where people can work together,'' she said, and ended the session with a pacific "Aloha!''

Barbour cautioned Republican candidates to refrain from attacking the president, period: "People want the president to succeed; good Lord, they want the country to succeed, and particularly the first African-American president has a lot of goodwill. . . . We need to be careful, we need to treat the president respectfully, we need to make this about policies, not personal. . . . This is a guy people like.''

Asked later whether he meant to suggest that tea-party rhetoric was hurting his party with the independent voters it needs to win, he said no: "I'm talking about winning candidates being prudent at what they talk about.'' In the recent gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, it was the losing Democratic candidates who were relentlessly negative. Barbour called Virginia's Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell a "master'' at the new model of candidate he'd like to recruit more of: "He never got off on personalities, and winning candidates don't; they're not shrill, they're not accusatory.''

So, is the party moving away from a focus on social issues like gay marriage and abortion?

Barbour said that smart politicians talk about whatever is on the minds of voters, and right now that's not social but economic issues.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that even when social issues are broached, they should be discussed in a way that's "thoughtful, civil, respectful and a tone that's not condescending.''

It's not surprising that party leaders said they like their chances in '10, when 37 gubernatorial and 37 Senate races will be on the ballot. But Barbour went so far as to predict a 1994-style Republican blowout next year: "I was chairman of the party 16 years ago when we were similarly situated'' – having just won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia in 1993, a year into a new Democratic administration and energized by the victories of Christie Todd Whitman and George Allen. The two moments are a lot alike, he said – only "this feels better.''

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