GOP governors gloat at ritzy resort

George W. Bush is a no-show, but rumors that he might drop by have attendees as excited as girls at a junior high slumber party expecting a surprise visit from the boys.

By Anthony York

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

If an encyclopedia were to have an entry for "Republican gathering place," it would be illustrated by a picture of the La Costa Resort and Spa, a sprawling luxury compound nestled on a strip of coastline near San Diego, where the nation's Republican governors are meeting this week. La Costa features valets in green knickers, golf berets and calf-high argyle socks. Once guests ditch their Lexuses and BMWs, the vehicle of choice is the golf cart, which guests use to navigate the grounds, its two PGA championship courses and 21 grass, clay and hard-surfaced tennis courts.

This meeting is more about shmoozing than bare-knuckled, back-room politicking, giving governors a chance to mingle easily with lobbyists and members of the media. One-on-one interviews are easy to arrange. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, for example, is available to talk to anyone, unless they want to discuss Sen. John McCain's temper. The National Rifle Association offered to take conference participants out skeet shooting, and Toyota invited governors to drive its new hybrid gas and electric car.

Governors and lobbyists alike could be heard debating the merits of which golf course to play, and whether there was time for a beer by the pool before the evening session. Many of the companies that helped pay for the gathering were treated to private meals with the governors. "There's relatively easy access" to the governors, said Mike Phillips, representing RJR Reynolds Tobacco. "We'll be playing golf, and at the functions and business meetings, you have access."

But the event's most important political purpose is to spotlight what has been the most explosive and successful group of Republican elected officials in the country. The GOP now controls 31 of the nation's 50 statehouses, and they have overseen massive transformations of the nation's welfare programs on a state-by-state basis. They've also padded their budgets with millions from a massive tobacco settlement, and have reaped the benefits of mostly booming state economies throughout most of the 1990s.

Founded in 1963, the Republican Governor's Association has now become the driving policy force behind Republican hopes of retaking the White House and rebuilding the party's tarnished post-impeachment image. Just as the Democratic Leadership Council produced President Clinton in 1992 and dragged the party to the center, the Republican governors are regarded as the moderating force of their party, whose congressional leadership has been berated for being too conservative and too intolerant since seizing control of Congress in 1994.

However, unlike the DLC, the governors association has no formal ideological mission and many of its members are staunch conservatives. "What sets this group apart is that they are CEOs," said association spokeswoman Kirsten Fedewa. "They deal with the delivery of services on a daily basis, and that really puts them in touch with the needs of the people."

The group is also the power base for the presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Some of Bush's earliest and strongest supporters are from this group, including Michigan Gov. John Engler, and some of Bush's most coveted endorsements have come from governors as well.

In all, 25 of the 31 governors (plus Bush himself, presumably) have endorsed the Texas governor. The most recent high-profile gubernatorial nod to Bush came from Hull, who showed her own maverick streak in bucking hometown hero McCain in favor of the Texan.

While the Bush brothers are both no-shows at the meeting, Carlsbad has been turned into a hotbed of compassionate conservatism. Lavishing praise on the GOP front-runner, most of the governors here sound like echoes of their Texan colleague, who has become their de facto leader.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating opened the event by describing the group's focus on reducing crime and reforming education. "This is a solution revolution," Keating said. "These are solution leaders."

All the governors who came to the dais, including Engler, Hull, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, extolled Bush's virtues and preached his mantra of compassionate conservatism. "We're sometimes accused of not caring," Huckabee said. "We have to destroy some of the myths that keep us from articulating the American dream to the American people. We are accused of supporting tax breaks for the rich, but the truth is we want working mothers and fathers to keep more of what they earn."

Hull touted her state's faith-based organizations, which she said "have taken up the slack" in helping welfare reform succeed. Engler praised Bush for his "pledge to the proposition of getting more power" returned to the states.

Gilmore thanked Bush and his family for campaigning to win Republican majorities in both houses of the Virginia state Legislature, the first time Republicans have held a majority in the nation's history. "With Bush in the White House," Huckabee said, "we won't have to fight our own president to fight to make life better."

Bush himself is not at the meeting; he's putting the finishing touches on a major foreign policy address scheduled for Friday at the Reagan Library, and preparing for a fund-raiser in nearby Del Mar set for Saturday. But his proximity has been noted, and rumors of a surprise George W. drop-in have some attendees buzzing like girls at a junior high school slumber party expecting a surprise visit from the boys.

The only name evoked more than Bush is that of another Republican governor who went on to be elected president: Ronald Reagan, who served as president of the organization in 1969, parlaying the role of Washington outsider into a successful run for the White House. On a day when members of the GOP congressional leadership once again had their hats handed to them in budget negotiations with President Clinton, the difference, if not tensions, between the governors and their counterparts in Congress loomed as subtext for the conference.

Keating was diplomatic when asked about the job of the Republican leadership during the budget negotiations, but acknowledged that "we might have had slightly different priorities. The Republican leadership had a challenge. They were dealing with an administration that is completely consumed by politics, not policy. I think under the circumstances, you get what you can get and go home, and focus on electing a Republican president who is not intent on dictating everything from Washington."

But the bad budget news didn't dampen spirits at the governors' fest, because they know they're the rising stars of the party.

"The only Washington guy in the [Republican race] is appealing to voters because he beats up on congressional leadership," said one governor, referring to McCain. "And a big part of John McCain's appeal is that he is hated by people like Mitch McConnell in his own party," he said. McConnell, who runs the soft-money arm of the Senate election effort, butted heads with McCain recently during the debate over McCain's campaign-finance reform bill.

The conference will continue through Friday, culminating in a roundtable discussion on Republican prospects in the 2000 elections.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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