LAS VEGAS The nation’s Republican governors said yesterday that President Bush soon must start campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates or risk having the party lose more contests next year.
Gathered here to lick their wounds after Tuesday’s double defeats, the governors generally declined to fault Mr. Bush for not campaigning for Republicans in Virginia or New Jersey or anywhere else for that matter.
But, choosing their words carefully, they also said the time soon may come for the president to “re-engage” as a Republican.
“President Bush, as popular as he is, certainly could have helped, but he made the right decision,” Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, incoming vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said in an interview.
“Leading the war against terrorism means he has a higher calling right now than electing Republicans,” Mr. Owens said, but added: “In several weeks or months, it may be time for him to start getting partisan.”
“It probably was unfortunate the president could not use his extraordinary approval and popularity to campaign for even one of the candidates,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“But given the sober circumstances he was facing, he had to put his presidential role over his political role,” added Mr. Huckabee, who helped carry Arkansas, President Clinton’s home state, for Mr. Bush last year.
“The president isn’t afraid to go out and campaign for conservatives his dilemma is that the American people are screaming for bipartisanship, even if they don’t know what it means,” said South Dakota Gov. William J. Janklow.
The governors also wondered aloud why their party couldn’t behave more like Democrats when it came to unity at election time.
“Sometimes, Republicans have a way of getting in the way of victory, as in the case of Virginia and New Jersey this time,” said Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, chairman of the RGA.
Mr. Owens was just as pointed. “Conservatives in our party rally round a moderate or liberal Republican candidate, but that’s not always true of liberals and moderate Republicans when a conservative is the candidate,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Owens said that was illustrated by the failure of Republican liberal and centrist lawmakers and party officials to coalesce behind gubernatorial candidates Mark L. Earley in Virginia and Bret D. Schundler in New Jersey.
Top Republicans in the Virginia state Senate tried to block Gov. James S. Gilmore III’s phasing out of the car tax, undermining Mr. Earley’s campaign to succeed the term-limited Mr. Gilmore.
“I was very disappointed with some Republicans in Virginia who let their disagreement with Governor Gilmore’s budget translate into an endorsement of [Democrat] Mark Warner,” Mr. Owens said.
But Republicans here also expressed disappointment with Mr. Earley for running a campaign that stubbornly dodged issues and failed to defend Mr. Gilmore and the car-tax cut.
In New Jersey, acting Republican Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco refused to endorse Mr. Schundler. County and other party leaders in the state declined “to lift a finger” as several Republicans put it privately for the conservative, pro-life, former Jersey City mayor.
With the Schundler and Earley defeats, Republican gubernatorial ranks, once at a high of 33, have dwindled to 27. Further slippage is expected in next year’s elections, some Republican campaign strategists have said privately.
The governors agreed that among the high spots for their party in Tuesday’s elections were two mayoral contests. One was the election of wealthy Democrat-turned-Republican Michael R. Bloomberg over Democrat Mark Green in New York City made possible in part by the endorsement from Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The other bright spot came in Houston, where the national Republican Party and the White House worked hard to see Orlando Sanchez make it into a runoff against incumbent Democratic Mayor Lee Brown.
Mr. Sanchez could become Houston’s first Hispanic mayor, and would help the party’s efforts to expand its Hispanic appeal.
A show of party unity was achieved by the governors, at least, when Mr. Huckabee, a former chairman of the National Governors Association, decided to bow out of the contest for RGA vice chairman and to throw his support to Mr. Owens.