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GOP Hits It Big With Governors

November 7, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Even as feeble election results shook up the GOP congressional leadership team, one wing of the Republican Party emerged stronger from midterm balloting: The governors.

From George Pataki in New York to George W. Bush in Texas, 16 of 18 Republican chief executives who faced voters Tuesday were re-elected _ many by large margins. The governors view their collective success as proof that they hold the antidote to the ills of congressional Republicans.

``The center of gravity is going back to the governors,″ said Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who modeled his campaign on President Clinton’s 1996 re-election bid and captured 63 percent of the vote.

In a series of interviews after Republicans settled for a stalemate in the Senate and lost five House seats,a surprise that drove House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia from office, GOP governors said they were more active, less extreme, more issue-orientated and better at touting their successes than Republicans in Congress.

``Governors projected a stronger message that related more to the concerns of the electorate,″ said Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who won with 57 percent of the vote. ``If you take a look at the campaigns of my colleagues, you’ll find Republican governors talking about jobs and job security, education and environment, crime and welfare reform _ things that naturally arise around the dinner table.″

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who worked for Ridge and three other GOP governors, said his surveys found that voters trusted congressional Democrats most to improve Social Security, education, the economy, health care, crime and the environment _ issues that rated as their greatest concerns.

In the governors’ races, the pollster found that Republicans held sway over Democrats on the major issues, including education. The only two incumbent Republicans who lost, David Beasely of South Carolina and Fob James of Alabama, were viewed as weak on education: They opposed raising money for schools through lotteries.

``Unlike the people in Congress, the governors had done stuff,″ McInturff said. ``Most of them spent all of 1998 saying, `Hey, I will increase spending on education. We’re getting rid of social promotion (in schools). I tightened education standards and school security.‴

Congressional Republicans didn’t send tax cuts to President Clinton, talked precious little about education, compromised more than necessary on the federal budget and spent millions of dollars trying to make the Monica Lewinsky scandal an issue, according to the GOP governors.

``What was our national party about this election cycle?″ asked Rowland of Connecticut. ``We were for impeachment ... and it was a total flop. While they were (dealing) with that, we were campaigning on welfare reform, tax-cutting proposals, balanced budgets and social inclusion.″

Some governors said their national party at times appears extremist _ forbidding to minorities, the middle class and, in the case of abortion, women.

``Our (gubernatorial) policies are compassionate,″ said Bush, who racked up nearly 70 percent of the vote in Texas. ``Otherwise, we don’t get re-elected.″

``People want to see their government working for them, not thinking for them,″ said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a conservative Baptist preacher who earned votes from six of every 10 women and half of all black voters.

Unlike congressional Republicans ``these governors are not using gays as a bashing issue and we’re not leading with our chins on social issues,″ Rowland said.

Some governors said Congress accomplished more than most voters realize and better public relations might have prevented Tuesday’s troubles.

``You’ve got to be for something. You’ve got to give voters a reason why they should be with you,″ Michigan Gov. John Engler said. He won 62 percent of the vote.

``When governors present their agenda of lower taxes, better jobs, better education and safer streets, people respond,″ said New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman. Re-elected in 1997, she was not on the ballot Tuesday but is the kind of moderate, abortion-rights Republican that drives the party’s conservative wing to distraction.

Indeed, the success of GOP governors last week puts party leaders in an ideological pincer. They are being second-guessed from the right _ where conservatives demand advances on a narrow agenda that includes abortion _ and from the left. As a result, even the most conservative governors like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin set their agenda in moderate tones.

There is no easy answer for congressional Republicans, not when conservatives reject the notion of granting the federal government a role in shaping local school and health care policies.

``I don’t have a good answer what we can do about that,″ McInturff said.

In the ultimate irony, governors are criticizing the same GOP lawmakers who transferred enormous federal powers to states since taking control of Congress in 1994. ``The leadership of this party is now coming from the states and not from Washington,″ said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. ``And thank God for that.″

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