TALLAHASSEE — Barely a week after Barack Obama's decisive victory, Republican governors across the country gather in Miami today for two days of exploring how to find their way out of the wilderness.
The host of the Republican Governors' Association event is Florida's Charlie Crist, a big believer in the "big tent" theory who calls his way of governing "a model for the country."
But Crist will have to share the stage with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was wildly popular with the conservative base of the GOP that remains a little wary of Crist.
"I think there's room for both Charlie Crist and Sarah Palin," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and fundraiser for Crist and John McCain. "If we don't embrace both, we're in trouble."
The second-guessing is well under way. In hindsight, Ballard, a member of McCain's national finance team, wonders if McCain might have won two critical states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, if he had picked former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who was discounted because he favors abortion rights.
"I wonder if we might rethink that," Ballard said.
Crist is one of several Republican governors who will address the convention. Others include Rick Perry of Texas, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.
But it is likely to be Palin who eclipses them all. Since last week's election defeat, the former vice presidential nominee has kept a very high profile with interviews and appearances in which she has said she'll "plow through that door" of a presidential run if it's God's will and conditions are right.
In Miami, Palin will give a speech about the future of the GOP Thursday, and before that she'll take questions from reporters.
It's hard to imagine the future Palin outlines will look like the one Crist would propose. He is a Republican who picked two social conservatives for back-to-back openings on the Florida Supreme Court, and whose opposition to higher taxes has earned him an A from the conservative Cato Institute, one of only three governors with that grade. Once an opponent of offshore oil drilling, he now would support it under certain conditions.
But Crist's priorities include addressing climate change and restoring civil rights of felons, and some Floridians are still waiting for their property tax bills to "drop like a rock," as he promised last year.
He has appointed Democrats to high-level state posts, and he took the advice of a Democratic legislator in extending the hours of early voting before last week's election, a step some viewed as favorable to Obama.
"I know I received some criticism from within my party by extending the hours for early voting," Crist said. "But at the end of the day, you've got to try to do what's right for all the people you serve."
As Republicans analyze last week's results, they need look no further than outside their hotel to see how Floridians split their tickets.
Miami-Dade gave Obama a huge 140,000-vote margin, but also returned three Republicans to Congress. Even as voters embraced diversity by choosing the nation's first black president, they also approved a ban on gay marriage in the Florida Constitution.
Crist says the key to success is for Republicans to be like him: work with Democrats, seek "common sense" solutions and avoid wedge issues that divide Floridians.
"I'm very proud of how our administration has been able to bring people together in a bipartisan fashion — almost a nonpartisan fashion," he said.
Crist's centrist, hopeful style has kept his approval ratings strong even during a prolonged economic slump, but it has at times strained his support among conservatives in his own party.
Crist will reach the midway point of his first term in a few weeks, and is busy planning his wedding in St. Petersburg next month while trying again to figure how to close the latest state budget shortfall of at least $1-billion without raising taxes.
He received 52 percent of the vote in 2006, in part due to the votes of Hispanics and a larger-than-expected share of African-American support.
Exit polls show both groups voted decisively for Obama in Florida.
Asked how the Republicans can win some of them back, Crist said: "You continue to push forward on issues like restoring felons' rights. That you demonstrate in a way that's manifested that all people of the state are important. … Everyone's included, and everyone's invited to the table."
This report includes information from the Associated Press. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.