Republican governors back away from Romney as they look ahead

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LAS VEGAS -- Republican leaders have begun reckoning with the fact that their party has grown increasingly out of step with a broad majority of American voters.

While party leaders remain confident in their beliefs, they have identified a litany of problems and a steep set of challenges: flawed candidates, a problematic message, the alienation of nonwhite Americans who account for a growing share of the population, outdated technology and a political operation that is not up to that of the Democrats.

A telling sign of their determination to change course was their swift denunciation of the latest tone-deaf comments by Mitt Romney, who little more than a week ago they were all trying to help elect president.

In a conference call with campaign donors Wednesday, Mr. Romney blamed his loss in part on "gifts" that a "very generous" President Barack Obama had given to African Americans, Hispanics and young people. It was similar in sentiment to his earlier suggestion -- also to a group of wealthy contributors -- that 47 percent of the American public consists of government-dependent deadbeats who view themselves as victims.

Asked about Mr. Romney's latest comments, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal bristled and told reporters at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas: "I absolutely reject that notion, that description."

"We need to stop being a dumb party, and that means more than stop making dumb comments," added Mr. Jindal, the RGA's incoming chairman and a rising star in the party.

The need to reorient and rebuild the party was a major topic of conversation at the governors' meeting. Among top concerns was the party's failure to attract Hispanics, the fact that its voter turnout operation did not live up to expectations, its flatfooted response to Mr. Obama's attacks on Mr. Romney and its misplaced optimism that Mr. Romney would win.

At one session, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour laid out the need to take an ungentle approach to fixing those problems: "We've got to give our political organization a very serious proctology exam. We need to look everywhere."

Mr. Jindal and other governors insisted that putting the party back on track does not mean betraying its traditional principles. "In the face of the losses, we do have to make changes," he said. "We need to modernize our party. We don't need to moderate our party."

Added Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a recall effort earlier this year: "It's not that our beliefs are wrong. We're not doing an effective enough job articulating those beliefs."

Mr. Walker also was critical of Mr. Romney's comments. "We're the party that helps people find a pathway to live the American dream," he said. "They want to have a chance to live the American dream. They want to have a job."

Just two years ago, fueled by the insurgent forces of the Tea Party movement, Republicans took back the House in a midterm election viewed as a repudiation of Mr. Obama. But the president's relatively easy victory last week suggests that the gains of 2010 masked deeper problems for the GOP.

Still, Republicans see reason for optimism, particularly at the state level. In January, the number of GOP governors will reach 30 -- the highest number either party has claimed in a dozen years.

Some of them are considered to be among the Republicans' brightest prospects for the 2016 presidential election -- a topi much discussed outside the meeting's formal sessions, held at the luxurious Wynn Encore casino and resort and attended by a large contingent of lobbyists.

Among attendees was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on his first trip outside his home state since it was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. As he made his way through the halls, Mr. Christie was frequently stopped by well-wishers and congratulated on his performance following the storm.

Back-to-back presidential losses have often forced political parties to look for a new path. After losing in 1984 and 1988, for instance, Democrats moved away from their traditional New Deal liberalism and turned to the "third way" centrism advocated and embodied by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

GOP governors are well positioned to lead a similar movement now, said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer who advises conservative groups. "They're going to know sooner than the people in Washington what is politically feasible and viable."

As recently as the 2000 election, Republican governors united early around then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and played an important role in easing his path to the nomination.



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