Republican governors, who swept to big victories last year, think President Barack Obama faces huge political obstacles. But they're hardly brimming with confidence about the 2012 election.
Meeting this week in Florida, GOP governors and their advisers fret that their party could lose its advantage on the tax-cut issue by appearing too eager to protect the rich. Some also warn Republican candidates not to reflexively dismiss anti-Wall Street sentiment, which might be seeping more deeply into the middle class than they realize.
Publicly, the governors predict Obama will be a one-term president. But few have stuck their necks out by endorsing any of their party's candidates, even with the Iowa caucus five weeks away.
"Independents are leaning our way, but they're not quite there yet," pollster Glen Bolger told the Republican Governors Association during a panel session Wednesday on the 2012 elections. He said he foresees a very close race.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Obama cannot run on his record, mainly because of the nation's high unemployment rate. So Obama will focus on "tearing down the Republican nominee," Jindal said, predicting a much more negative campaign than in 2008.
Jindal, who backs Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is one of the few Republican governors who has endorsed someone. Most of his colleagues seem wary. Their wait-and-see approach lent a somber tone to the Orlando gathering, which bordered Disney World and might have felt festive if the party were coalescing around one strong contender.
They have plenty of reasons to be cautious, GOP pollster Frank Luntz said in the panel discussion chaired by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. If next year's campaign is couched as a battle over the middle class, Luntz said, "Democrats will win."
Republicans should say they're fighting for "hard-working taxpayers," said Luntz, who is known for conducting focus groups and advising Republicans on precise words to use and to avoid.
He also warned that most Americans support Obama's bid to raise taxes on the wealthiest households, and he urged Republicans not to get engaged in a debate over "taxing" the rich. Instead, he said, they should talk about the evils of "the government taking money from hard-working Americans," no matter how much they earn.
Luntz added, "I'm so scared by this anti-Wall Street effort." He was referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which many GOP candidates have criticized, sometimes in sneering terms. Republicans should defend "free enterprise," he said, a term that's preferable to "capitalism."
And Luntz said he thinks former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, generally seen as the party establishment's favorite candidate, has been hurt by a new Democratic video that mocks his changed positions on abortion, gun rights and other issues. The video cleverly uses humor, he said, which is more palatable to voters sick of partisan squabbles.
That's not to say the governors' gathering was all gloom and worry. In an interview, Barbour, who considered a presidential bid of his own, said Obama faces big problems.
"He's very weak by historical standards," Barbour said, with "low job approvals."
"Voters' view of the direction of the country, the results of his policies, the lack of optimism are all terrible indicators," he said.
Barbour added, however, that Obama will have "a gigantic amount of money, and no primary opposition." Barbour, who endorsed a candidate in the 2000 Republican primary but not in 2008, is staying out of this year's contest.
There was scant sympathy at the governors' gathering for presidential candidate Herman Cain, first damaged by sexual harassment allegations and now accused of having a 13-year affair with an Atlanta woman.
"Initially, I think Iowans were certainly understanding and willing to hear his side," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters. "But it's been one thing after another after another after another."
There were few signs of governors jumping on the bandwagon of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who many party insiders now see as the likeliest alternative to Romney. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, repeated his opinion that a current or former governor is probably best-suited to run for president.
A month or so ago, that comment sounded like an even-handed treatment of Perry and Romney. But Perry has struggled to regain his footing after weak debate performances, and Gingrich, who was never a governor, has moved up in the polls.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie repeated his full-throated support of Romney, and predicted he will defeat Obama.
A prized endorsement will come soon from Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, whose state holds its primary after Iowa and New Hampshire voters have their say. Haley told reporters she will announce her preference before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. She offered no hints Wednesday, except to say that Romney and Gingrich appear to be the strongest contenders in her state for now.
"We'll endorse the person who should win, not the person that could win," Haley said. "We will endorse the person that will get the country back on track. ... It's all based on policy."
Branstad, who is staying neutral, urged reporters and political activists to stay calm. For "normal people," he said, "it's still early."