The GOP governors reluctantly acknowledge that the series of gaffes threatens to undermine public confidence in President Bush's ability to provide security, which has long been his greatest strength among voters.
"You've got solid conservatives coming up speaking like they haven't before, it's likely that something's going on at the grass roots," said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina. "Whether it's temporary or not remains to be seen."
The unease was clear in interviews with more than a dozen governors over the weekend, including nearly half of the Republicans attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The annual conference was taking place in a capital enthralled by the political firestorm over government plans to approve takeover of operations at some terminals at six U.S. ports by a company owned by the United Arab Emirates government.
Despite the discomfort, however, Republican governors gave the president a rock-star welcome as the headliner at a glitzy Monday night reception that added $9.6 million to GOP campaign coffers for fall races. "I thank you for your steadfast support," Bush told his statehouse colleagues.
Democrats see opportunity, and even those in conservative states say the administration's missteps will have a ripple effect politically at home. "I do think there's a considerable degree of skepticism about what's been happening at the federal level," said Democrat Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. "If you didn't pick it up on Katrina, you did when you tried to help your parents" get drugs through the new Medicare program.
But it wasn't Bush's political opponents alone who saw weaknesses. So did his allies — listing the days of chaos in New Orleans after the hurricane, the nationwide confusion over the drug prescription program that forced many states to step in to help seniors get medications, and the ports security debacle that has drawn criticism from leading Republicans in Congress and the states.
"I don't think he was well served on the port issue by the bureaucracy," said Republican Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, who is leading a united front of governors pushing back on potential reductions to National Guard forces. "He's at the forefront on national security. When you combine this flap on the ports, and these potential cuts on the military, you need to make sure that issue doesn't slip away. It's one of his strengths."
He also said the lack of communication from the administration on the Guard issue has been a problem. "There has been too much we have learned outside the loop. It's time we be inside the loop."