From NBC's Mark Murray
AUSTIN, Tex. -- When GOP governors huddled at the annual Republican Governors Association meeting a year ago in Miami, the party had just suffered another thumping at the polls, Sarah Palin was the unquestioned star attraction, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was urging his party to be more positive and inclusive, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was seen as a new hope for the GOP.
But as this year's RGA meeting begins in earnest here deep in the heart of Texas, things have certainly changed. Republicans are now celebrating their wins earlier this month in New Jersey and Virginia; Palin is no longer in office and is instead selling her controversial memoir; Pawlenty has become a frequent Obama critic and is emphasizing his conservative views; and Crist (who won't be in attendance) has gone from possible GOP hope to a conservative target in his race for the Senate next year.
Indeed, at least four stories will be on display here at the RGA meeting, which concludes on Thursday night. One, is the GOP poised for a political comeback? Two, looking ahead to 2012, who are the party's potential presidential candidates? (Pawlenty, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, RGA Chair Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Indiana's Mitch Daniels will be in attendance.) Three, who are their top gubernatorial candidates for the 2010 midterms? (Ohio's John Kasich, Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, and Florida's Bill McCollum will be here.) And four, is there really an ideological split inside the party? (While Palin is selling her book today in Michigan, the RGA will be celebrating two Republicans who won, in part, by hugging the middle -- New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie and Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell.)
It's also worth noting how the GOP rhetoric has changed from last year to this year. Here was Pawlenty a year ago in Miami: "People mostly want to follow positive leaders; they don't want to follow cranks." Here was Jindal: "We can't just be the party of 'No.'" Here was even Palin: "We are the minority party, but let us resolve not to become the negative party." Ironically, becoming the party of "No" has paid dividends -- so far -- for the GOP a year after Obama's historic win. The question to ponder is whether that's a sustainable long-term message for the party.
Today's RGA agenda: The public events kick off at 5:30 pm ET with a plenary session entitled "State-Based Solutions." It features Pawlenty, Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kasich, Corbett, Christie, and McDonnell. Then, at 7:00 pm ET, there's a press briefing to discuss the 2009 campaigns. Speakers include RGA Chairman Barbour, McDonnell, Christie, RGA Executive Director Nick Ayers, and GOP pollster Glen Bolger and Jon Lerner. Finally, at 8:35 pm ET, Perry, Jindal, McDonnell, and Christie speak at a "Victory Barbeque."