- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

SAN DIEGO | The 2010 elections barely over, nearly three dozen current and incoming Republican governors already are looking to the next election, aiming to capitalize on victories in presidential battlegrounds while working to shed the GOP’s white-guy image.

Still a full two years away, the 2012 contests - and who should lead the party during the next election cycle when President Obama will be up for re-election - hung heavily over the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference.

No fewer than four potential presidential candidates, including outgoing RGA Chairman Haley Barbour and Vice Chairman Tim Pawlenty, and a slew of GOP rising stars were among the 34 governors and governors-elect attending the two-day gathering.

With roughly 900 people expected, the meeting was to be the largest celebration by the political arm of the nation’s Republican governors since 1994 when the GOP posted huge gains. Two weeks ago, Republican candidates scored enough victories to ensure that the party will control a majority of states - 29 - come January.

That’s significant because Republican governors will set conservative state policy that’s expected to counter what’s coming out of Washington under a Democratic controlled White House. Also, in many states, Republicans will preside over the every-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative districts, putting the GOP’s stamp on the country for the next 10 years.

Behind the scenes, incoming and outgoing governors alike privately wrestled with what to do about Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, whose tenure has been marked by ill-chosen comments, anemic fundraising and questions about the committee’s finances. Governors were weighing whether to encourage committee members from their states to back someone else for party leader.

Mr. Steele faces a vote of the 168-member RNC in January if he runs for re-election. He already faces one challenger in Saul Anuzis, a committee member from Michigan who lost his bid for national party chairman in 2009. There likely will be more.

Early Wednesday, former RNC political director Gentry Collins, who announced his resignation Tuesday in a scathing letter that blasted Steele’s management, briefed the RGA privately on the state of the party's umbrella committee. Two people who attended the session said Mr. Collins left the gathering with the impression that he’s likely to run.

As the public portion of the meeting got under way, the RGA promoted its victories in key electoral-rich battleground states that will be critical to Obama’s re-election chances - Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin among them - as well as triumphs by four female candidates, two Hispanics and one Indian-American.

“President Obama’s 2012 map is much more difficult” with Republicans now in control of a majority of states after elections that saw voters select “a diverse class of Republican governors that have the potential to transform the GOP,” according to an RGA memo.

The next generation of Republican governors were featured Wednesday on a panel that the RGA was calling “The New Face of the GOP.”

Among those being showcased at the gathering: South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, who will be the country’s first female Indian-American governor; New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, who will be the country’s first female Hispanic governor; Nevada Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic; and Oklahoma Gov.-elect Mary Fallin, the state’s first female chief executive.

“We’re determined to make the face of the Republican Party one that delivers results,” said Mrs. Martinez.

The emphasis on both strategy and diversity was a not-so-subtle recognition that the party has much work to do to repair its reputation as the party of white men or the GOP risks blowing a chance to take advantage of this year’s gains in key states as Republicans seek to topple Mr. Obama in 2012.

For both Mr. Barbour, Mississippi’s governor, and Mr. Pawlenty, Minnesota’s governor, the meeting was a chance to court potential supporters for possible 2012 presidential bids while reveling in an election cycle in which Republicans won many swing states that will be critical in the next election.

Among them: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Most of those currently have Democratic governors and were won by Mr. Obama in 2008.