Atlantic City, N.J. — Behind the scenes at the National Governors' Conference here, Republican leaders pored over a new plan for next year's elections that is being called a "GOP big-state strategy."
Already, Republicans claim the governorships of the big states of Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
They now are focusing major attention (fund-raising assistance and any other political aid that may be required) on winning California where Edmunch G. Brown Jr. will be leaving to run for the Senate and New York where Gov. Hugh Carey appears to be vulnerable for defeat.
The plan, according to sources who asked not to identified, will concentrate party attention on these governors' races. But there is also the expectation that the effort will do much to end the nationwide Democratic national gubernatorial majority, which now stands at 27 to 23. Moreover, Republicans in those states who are running for Congress, state legislature, and other local offices are also expected to benefit from the party's efforts.
There will be 37 gubernatorial races in 1982. The Democrats are more vulnerable to suffering losses next year simply because there are more Democratic than Republican-held governorships exposed to change by the will of the voters in 1982 (12 to 16).
As Republicans here see it, the Democratic governorships in Massachusetts, Kansas, Colorado, and Arizona, along with California and New York, are as they put it, "good GOP opportunity targets."
The nation's governors also freely moved move back and forth between their roles as governmental executives and politicians during the course of their meeting here.
One moment they would be discussing how better to improve relations with local officials.
They listened to mayors who expressed worries that the states would not be fair in distributing federal aid as it became more scarce. And they assured these local leaders that they would be more equitable.
And then, the next moment, in the halls or in their rooms or even out on this seaside city's famous Boardwalk, these same governors, and their staff members, would be talking politics -- notably the continuing political dominance of President Reagan.
There was also a mix of politics and substance that governors indulged in. For example, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes and Jerry Brown engaged in a spirited clash over oil drilling off California.
The rhetoric got a little personal at times -- but both of these "pols" obviously were thinking more about possible headlines than an authentic confrontation.
Then Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, both Democrats, caught the eye of the conference with a proposal that there be a "swap" that would, as they envisioned it, make federalism more acceptable to the states. They would like to see the federal government pick up the full cost of medicaid in return for the state assumming all the costs of education.
Finally, there seemed to be what some observers call a "Democratic lament" that was quite pervasive here.
A number of Democratic state chief executives are letting it be known that they feel that the Democratic Party at both the national and state levels has pretty much gone off in its own direction and left them stranded. These governors have, for the most part, accepted Reagan federalism -- the concept of returning both power and revenue sources to the states. But they say the Democratic Party leadership doesn't seem to be in tune with this idea.