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Obama's main opposition may come from governors' mansions

WASHINGTON — It may be a bigger threat to President Barack Obama than Romney, Palin or Gingrich — a crew by the name of Christie, Scott and Walker that is slashing budgets, undercutting the new health care law and picking fights with unions.

Call 2011 the year of the Republican governor.

Newly elected officials such as New Jersey's Chris Christie, Florida's Rick Scott and Wisconsin's Scott Walker are exerting power in dramatic ways and jumping over each other for a share of the national spotlight.

"Keeping up with the Christies," chided the New York Times editorial page when Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail. Christie killed a commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan.

With more Republican legislatures behind them than any time since 1952, the governors are successfully pushing a conservative, anti-Obama agenda just as the president prepares for his re-election campaign.

"They are more important than Congress right now," said U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "The more they push back, the better chance we have at cutting back the role of the federal government."

Republicans now control 29 governors' mansions, a gain of seven since 2009, and have taken a majority of the swing voter states from Democrats, including Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and New Mexico.

The challenge for Obama runs to Florida, too, where Alex Sink barely lost the race for governor, the best hope for Democrats in a long time. Now, Scott has a megaphone that he uses nearly daily to oppose Obama's policies.

The governors say the November midterm elections, where voters sided overwhelmingly with Republicans, were a mandate to tackle spending and improve the business climate in their states through less regulation and taxes.

When one steps out, it encourages the others. Together they are supplanting Congress and the crop of Republican presidential hopefuls as the primary check on the White House.

"They are doing what they were elected to do — tackle tough problems by taking bold action to place their states on a path for a stronger future," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

• • •

Driving the debate and news attention are Christie, 48; Scott, 58; Walker, 43; and John Kasich, 58, of Ohio.

Facing deep deficits, the governors have produced austere budgets that in some cases are even too severe for their Republican legislatures. But they have pleased conservative activists. Scott used a tea party rally to roll out his budget plan, which included $1.7 billion in tax cuts and $4.6 billion in spending reductions.

In Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, governors have rejected federal money for high-speed rail, a top priority of Obama, dismissing the jobs that would be created as short-term and fretting over billions in unforeseen maintenance costs.

Most Republican governors have joined in lawsuits challenging the new health care law and some have resisted implementing the changes, contending they are unconstitutional. Now they want to force changes to Medicaid, asking the White House and leaders in Congress to make it easier to remove people from the program due to budget constraints.

"We shouldn't have to come up here and kowtow and kiss the ring," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told a House committee last week.

They also are trying to overhaul the pension system for state workers and eliminate tenure for schoolteachers.

Most famously, Walker in Wisconsin is curtailing collective bargaining rights for public employees, encouraging other governors to do the same, and spawning noisy protests outside state capitols.

"They're all trying to out-reform each other," said Michael Petrelli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. "It's an opportunity for them to make themselves national figures."

• • •

The jostling for attention is tempered by a collegiality. The governors call each other and send encouragement via Twitter. "Props to @GovWalker for new reforms to public employee unions that give taxpayers more rights," Kasich wrote recently.

A tip he received from Christie, Scott has started counting down the days left in the legislative session as a way to highlight the urgency of passing his agenda. Scott also enjoys publicly recounting his meetings with Christie and Christie's wife, Mary Pat.

Scott has had several phone conversations with Walker, most recently Thursday when he called to congratulate Walker after lawmakers in Madison approved the antiunion bill.

"They're likable guys," Scott said. "Every governor has their own issues, but some of them are the same. So you can call and say, 'How have you dealt with something?' That's helpful."

But Scott also sees his colleagues as the competition.

He promises to best Texas Gov. Rick Perry by stealing businesses from the Lone Star State. He plucked Florida's top corrections official from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration and reached into Barbour's back yard to hire Florida's head of economic development.

"Everything I've ever tried to do in my life is to try to be the best at it," Scott said of the rivalry.

He has yet to match the buzz surrounding Christie, who was elected in 2009 and set the tone by calling for public employee pension changes and rejecting federal money for a commuter rail tunnel to New York.

Last month, Christie made the cover of the New York Times Magazine, enshrined as "the Disrupter." Conservatives underwhelmed with the current crop of presidential hopefuls have turned to Christie. He says he will not run, but if he did, he would win.

• • •

The bullish front has stirred debate over motivations and the public is beginning to show some weariness.

"I think people are going to see that the Republican governor's tea party has a lot more to do with Alice in Wonderland than it does with Sam Adams," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. "Some of them are much more Mad Hatter than they are James Madison."

Walker has become a hero to conservatives nationally, but a recent poll shows he lost support among some Republican voters in Wisconsin.

In Florida, fewer voters have a favorable opinion about Scott now than they did during the campaign last year. Weak numbers would make it tougher to defeat Obama in 2012.

"My focus is not the presidential elections," Scott insisted. "My focus is what's good for the citizens of Florida. Step one: Obama­care is a disaster for patients."

But he's aware of the national movement backing him and his counterparts.

"People are listening to what you're doing, whether it's Wisconsin or New Jersey, Ohio or Texas," Scott told a tea party rally on Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session. "You're changing the country."

Alex Leary can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @learyspt. Michael C. Bender can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Governors to watch

Republicans now hold the governor's office in 29 states. In addition to New Jersey's Chris Christie, Florida's Rick Scott, Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich, here are some others to watch:

Mitch Daniels of Indiana. He was pushing many of the ideas his new counterparts now embrace years ago, and he's attracting presidential buzz. Daniels privatized a state highway, cut the state work force to historic lows and eliminated bargaining rights for state employee unions.

Nikki Haley of South Carolina. She's the first female governor of her state and the country's second Indian-American governor, running on a platform of budget cuts and curtailing illegal immigration.

Brian Sandoval of Nevada. The state's first Hispanic governor, Sandoval will likely grow in prominence as the 2012 election approaches. He's pushing state workers to take 5 percent pay cuts and pay more for health benefits.

Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. He has not been as fiery in his zeal for budget cuts, but the state is a major player in presidential elections.

Rick Snyder of Michigan. The former Gateway computer executive campaigned as "one tough nerd" and has followed it up with calls for deep budget cuts and a tax on public pension benefits while pushing for nearly $2 billion in business tax cuts.

Obama's main opposition may come from governors' mansions 03/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 8:34pm]
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