The Republican governors who swarmed here for the National Governors Association meeting offered little consensus on whether the GOP presidential primary had already wounded whichever man becomes the party’s nominee. Some dismissed the notion entirely; others talked openly of a contested convention in August.
But the GOP chief executives were of like mind on at least one aspect of the presidential contest: Their eventual nominee is not going to beat President Obama by talking about contraception and other social issues, as important as they are.
“When I’m talking to people in Virginia … about what bothers them and their children and grandchildren, it’s, ‘How am I going to get the cost of college education down?’” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has endorsed Mitt Romney and is often mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick. “How am I going to get Johnny out of debt before he goes out into the world? Is Johnny going to get a job when they graduate or are we still going to have this horrible job environment? Is Johnny going to be saddled with $50,000 in national debt because we can’t pay it off in this current generation?
“I mean, that’s what families are talking about,” he added. “They’re not as much talking about these other issues.”
The “other issues” McDonnell is referring to range from abortion to gay rights to the debate on contraception set off when President Obama proposed requiring religious affiliated organizations to offer employees free contraception coverage in health insurance plans. Obama eventually compromised by ordering insurance companies to cover contraception themselves, but the GOP presidential field is still discussing contraception and other hot-button issues, such as the role of religion in politics. The emphasis has not only highlighted views that in some cases are outside the mainstream, it has distracted from critiques of the economy, the issue still most pressing for voters.
Most of Republican governors were reluctant to rebuke their presidential trail compatriots directly about their wavering focus, but they made it clear it’s not how they would attack Obama. When asked how they would prepare to go up against him in November, their answers dealt exclusively with fiscal matters.
“We know, you just can’t increase national debt $1.3 trillion year after year after year,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. “He has no plan to really bring federal spending under control. And I think it should be beneath the president of the United States to spend time attacking the very people we need creating jobs. The banks, the entrepreneurs, the people we need to invest and create jobs.”
Who is responsible for the shift in discussion from economic to social issues is a matter of debate among the governors;many of them blame the media for focusing on cultural topics and dragging the candidates along with them. “I’m concerned about people that asking about them in the debates,” said McDonnell. “The press are asking more about social issues.”
But it’s incumbent upon the Republican candidates to reclaim the conversation, they say. “It is important for us to communicate well to American people what we would do different, and how the results would be different,” said Haley Barbour, the former Republican governor of Mississippi. “So the starting point is talking about Obama’s policies and failed results, but then, here’s what we would do differently, and here how the results will be different.”
For the last month, coinciding with the rise of social conservative Rick Santorum, the conversation has been very different. But at least one candidate says he’s on the track that the governors have recommended. “I’m willing to talk about gasoline prices where President Obama’s anti-American energy policy has led to the highest gasoline prices on average in 2011, in American history,” Newt Gingrich said at a campaign stop in Georgia on Sunday. “So I’m happy to meet the interest of the governors in talking about economic issues.”
Sarah Huisenga contributed
Sarah Huisenga contributed contributed to this article.