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From left: Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Mitch Daniels of Indiana deliver State of the State addresses to their respective legislatures on Jan. 11.

A batch of Republican governors are weighing a challenge to the president in 2012. So why are they sounding so much like him these days?

by Andrew Romano

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a governor in possession of the statehouse—and also in want of his party’s presidential nomination—must necessarily use his pre-election-year State of the State address as a platform for partisan showboating. After all, what better opportunity will he have, at least before primary season begins, to brag about his accomplishments and bill himself as the ideal alternative to the other party’s presumptive nominee?

Which is why it was such a surprise that when three of the GOP’s top 2012 prospects—Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—seized the spotlight Tuesday to weigh in on the states of their respective states, they wound up sounding less like bloodthirsty Republican warriors than (believe it or not) the Democrat they might be running against: President Barack Obama. The echoes weren’t intentional, nor were they particularly overt. But they were striking enough to raise the question of whether the GOP will still have enough gas in its tank to beat Obama by the time November 2012 actually rolls around.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like Daniels, Barbour, and Christie spent their speeches praising the president. Barbour was the most critical, slamming Obama’s health-care mandates, financial services law, proposed cap-and-trade plan, and “gigantic deficits” for “imped[ing] hiring,” “stymie[ing] investment,” “stifl[ing] economic growth,” and “driving up the cost of energy.” Daniels bemoaned the “national economic ebb tide that continues to leave too many boats stuck in the muck”: Christie hinted that not all of those “entrusted to serve the public” are “stand[ing] up and fight[ing] for what really needs to be done at this critical time.” And all three governors contrasted their own fiscal tightfistedness with Washington, D.C.’s recession-era profligacy.

But when each governor pivoted away from the past and started spelling out his priorities for the year ahead, it was remarkable to hear how much he and Obama had in common. Christie summed up Tuesday’s common themes most concisely. “One, we must stick to the course of fiscal discipline,” he said. “Two, we must fix our pension and health benefit systems in order to save them. And three, we must reform our schools.” The governors agreed that the first item could best be accomplished, as Christie put it, by “holding the line on taxes” while “asking for shared sacrifice in cutting what we don’t need so that we can invest in what we absolutely do need.” The second, meanwhile, meant different things in different states—reinvesting a Medicaid surplus in Mississippi; raising the retirement age and increasing public-employee contributions in New Jersey—but with a shared emphasis on efficiency and modernization. And nowhere was the consensus stronger than on the issue that all three governors listed as their top priority for 2011: education. Less tenure, more charter schools, more teacher evaluation, and higher teacher pay—Barbour, Daniels, and Christie hit each of the major reform-movement notes. Christie praised former Washington public-schools chief Michelle Rhee, who was in the audience; Daniels gave a shout-out to Obama himself.

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Story Compliments Of Newsweek.com

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