Thursday, December 1, 2005

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Virginia Sen. George Allen and Arizona Sen. John McCain are most frequently mentioned as front-runners for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination by officials and campaign advisers attending the annual Republican Governors Association meeting.

The consensus here is that Mr. McCain, though a maverick despised by some conservatives, is so popular with voters that Republicans may well choose him to carry their banner against New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrat they say is the hands-down favorite to be her party’s standard-bearer.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the RGA chairman, is talked about as a dark horse, but several campaign advisers and party officials said they doubted his Mormon religion would play well with some evangelical Christian voters.

In mostly private discussions, party officials said public distrust of Republican leadership on the war in Iraq and the growing number of stories about legal and ethical issues are threatening to set back the Republican majority-party status in next year’s congressional and gubernatorial elections.

“Trust in government — and that means lack of public trust in Republicans — and the Iraq war are the top concerns of the Republicans at this meeting, and back home,” said South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a former three-term congressman who is well-liked by conservatives.

Voters in 36 states will elect a governor next year, with Republicans defending 22 seats, including the four most populous states: California, Texas, New York and Florida. Fifteen Republican governors are eligible to seek re-election. Seven governorships held by Republicans will be open.

Historically, Americans usually put a governor or former governor in the Oval Office.

“The reason Allen has so much going for him is that he was an effective governor in Virginia, no question, an effective senator who headed the Senate GOP campaign committee that got us a Republican majority in the Senate,” said Craig Berkman, former chairman of the Oregon Republican Party.

“And people underestimate him the way they underestimated Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Berkman said. “Like Reagan, he’s tall, wears cowboy boots, is relatively unassuming, has a young family and is a lot smarter than people think — just as Reagan was a lot smarter than people gave him credit for.”

Mr. Berkman said Mr. Allen “made a big impact as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and he was very much involved in [South Dakota Sen.] John Thune’s victory over [former Senate Minority Leader] Tom Daschle, and a lot of people remember that — important people in a Republican presidential: givers and political activists.”

The administration’s views were represented here by Ken Mehlman, one of President Bush’s most trusted spokesmen. In an address, Mr. Mehlman yesterday emphasized the progress being made in fashioning Iraq into a self-governing democracy and, on the domestic front, in balancing the needs of U.S. employers who rely on foreign-born labor with a national imperative to secure America’s borders against illegal aliens.

Mr. Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, said the “election climate” for members of his party would vary from state to state but that “voters clearly want change,” which he interpreted to mean not change in which political party is dominant but rather in providing more of the tax and education reforms that a Republican administration and Congress have brought.

“The fact is, the challenge we faced in the 21st century, Washington hasn’t been able to deal with the way it should,” Mr. Mehlman said.

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