The GOP's route back to power in Washington may have to take a detour through St. Paul, Tallahassee or Baton Rouge, party leaders from those state capitals said at a meeting of Republican governors Wednesday.
As Republicans reflect on last week's losses in the election — and seek a path to success in the presidential campaign in 2012 — red-state governors said they could be key to rebuilding.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party's vice presidential nominee, will address the conference today. She has left the door open to a job in Washington as senator or on a presidential ticket.
There are other rising stars in the ranks of the Republican governors. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal presided over a smooth evacuation before Hurricane Gustav this summer. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who brought daylight-saving time to Hoosiers, was re-elected with a wide margin.
"The place where Americans can regain confidence in the Republican Party is where we have Republican governors," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said. "We're taking Republican principles and values and applying them to real issues and real life."
In addition to losing the White House to Barack Obama, Republicans lost 26 House and Senate seats. Several races are still undecided.
State leaders are often in a position to pick up the mantle of leadership after a rout at the federal level, said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. As executives, governors must work with lawmakers across party lines to keep their states running.
"This happens after every defeat," Sabato said. "Parties have a period of introspection, which is good, and they look for new leaders, which can be good."
Governors have more power to try new ideas, said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, the RGA's counterpart. Because of that, they can cast themselves as change agents.
"If I were them, I would look to states for ideas and leadership," he said. "For both parties, there's just a tremendous amount of innovation at the state level."
As the three-day annual governors' conference opened, Palin faced questions about her future. She told CNN Wednesday she would consider running for an open Senate seat if Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens leaves office. Stevens, whose race is too close to call, was convicted of not reporting gifts he received from wealthy friends.
"If it were acknowledged up there that I could be put to better use for my state in the U.S. Senate, I would certainly consider that," Palin said. "But that would take a special election and everything else. I am not one to appoint myself or a member of my family to take the place of any vacancy."
In a meeting that became part rallying cry, part bloodletting, Republicans spoke candidly about why they felt the party had fared so poorly on Election Day. Some pointed to GOP weakness with young voters and minorities. Others said Republicans strayed from core conservative values, such as smaller government.
"We have to be honest with ourselves," said Jindal, who warned about blaming the losses on outside factors. "It was a pretty sweeping victory."
Asked whether he thought the party would move away from social conservative issues, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Republicans must strike a balance between those and more immediate concerns. "I think what you need to do is have an emphasis on the issues that affect people in their daily lives," he said. "Right now, with this economy, there's no question in my mind those are pocketbook issues."