Republicans see the road to the White House running through a state capitol - who has the best shot?

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Republican Govs. Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell have seen their stars dim since they rallied a dejected base with their victories in the 2009 election, a turn of events that underscores the volatile nature of politics and has opened the door for other chief executives to try to assert their influence over a party without a clear national leader.

While some grass-roots Republicans have looked to Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio for guidance, others say the party should be focused more on the states, where a deep bench of governors are driving conservative agendas and possibly positioning themselves for the 2016 presidential race.

“You have a whole collection of governors that could run for president,” said Grover Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform and its influential no-new-taxes pledge. “The thing to watch is the 25 Republican governors with Republican legislatures. They could, if they choose to, wake up tomorrow and work in the House and Senate in the state to pass amazing things and become a national star. And if they don’t, it is their own damn fault.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made a name for himself in national circles by stripping most state public employees of their collective bargaining rights and altering their retirement plans. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has said Republicans need to stop being the “stupid” party, while also spearheading school-choice efforts and pushing an overhaul of the state’s tax code.

And New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez could be the embodiment of what the GOP now needs: a charismatic leader of Mexican-American descent, and a woman who’s a gun-toting former Democrat.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has upset some fellow Republicans by taking unpopular policy stances. (Associated Press)

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has upset some fellow Republicans by taking unpopular ... more >

Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Mike Pence of Indiana and Brian Sandoval of Nevada also are thought to be pondering runs, though Mr. Perry ran last time, quickly became the front-runner and then just as quickly imploded. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also has elbowed his way back onto the national stage to promote his new book “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution” — fueling speculation that he wants to add another chapter to his political career.

Despite his stumbles, Mr. Christie cannot be counted out, Republicans say.

He “has the media persona and comes from an arctic blue state,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “But with 70 percent approval that is nothing to sneeze at, particularly for a party who might be willing to nominate Lucifer if it meant winning the Oval Office again.”

The rise of the governors — 30 in all — comes as the Republicans try to pick up the pieces from the November election when President Obama won a second term and Democrats picked up seats in both the House and the Senate despite four years of a bad economy and unemployment historically high.

The authors of the Republican National Committee’s postelection breakdown of what went wrong, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” said governors have done a better job than the national party in reaching out to minority voters and delivering on “conservative promises of reducing the size of government while making people’s lives better.”

“It is time for Republicans on the federal level to learn from successful Republicans on the state level,” the report says.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the latest in a long line of executives who have been tapped as the party’s standard bearer in a presidential race. Over the past 50 years, the GOP has nominated just two candidates — Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Bob Dole of Kansas — that lacked executive experience, and both men lost.

“Republicans love governors because they tend to be more visionary and energetic,” said Darrell M. West, a politics scholar at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank. “Governors do not have the luxury of inaction. Most of them are required to balance their budgets each year and deal with major policy problems. Unlike legislators who talk a lot, executives have to act. Some of the most successful GOP presidential nominees previously served as governor and went on to become president.”

Roughly four years ago, it appeared that Mr. Christie and Mr. McDonnell would lead the Republican Party forward as it looked to regroup from the 2008 election, in which Mr. Obama won the White House and Democrats maintained control of the House and Senate.

Their victories in New Jersey and Virginia respectively, just a year after Mr. Obama won both states in the presidential race, were heralded as proof that the Republican Party could regain its footing at the ballot box.

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