The decision by a host of conservative governors to accept the entire portion of the stimulus package destined for their states would seem, on the surface, to put them on thin ice with party activists who had cheered their opposition to the president's spending priorities.
But several high-ranking Republican strategists are giving the party's rising stars -- including Govs. Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford -- a pass, arguing that voters ultimately won't judge these potential presidential candidates on whether or not they took the stimulus cash.
"My sense is that the real puritans will argue that they shouldn't have taken it but the people in the governing process and the states are what matter," said Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist. "The chattering class doesn't matter to them at this point."
"These people are governors of their states, they are governors of everybody," added Larry Hart, director of government relations for the American Conservative Union. "They have to make the tough decisions that affect everybody...What could happen [if they didn't take the funds] is that the money would perhaps go to a neighboring state. You have to weigh all these things."
The pass is undoubtedly welcome news for those governors who made political shows out of not accepting stimulus money for their states. Over the past month, Palin, Jindal and Sanford all decried the stimulus package as the worst of government spending. And, as a nod to their philosophical objections, they all flirted with not accepting a portion of the cash, specifically the money for unemployment insurance.
On Thursday, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford became the last of the holdouts to finally give in, accepting the final $700 million of $8 billion for the state. His administration is still attempting to strike a deal with the state legislature to direct funds towards debt relief, which the White House had said should not be done. But, regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the governor lost his showdown with the White House.
"We are pleased with reports that Governor Sanford will join the other 49 governors -- Democrats and Republicans -- in filing a certification to accept Recovery Act money," read a statement from Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.
For Sanford, the acceptance of stimulus funds would seem to be a chink in his fiscal conservative armor. Term limits prohibit the governor from running again and he is believed to hold aspirations for the White House. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), among others, accused him of preening for Republican attention by first refusing the stimulus money and then demanding it be spent on debt relief.
But Republican activists don't see it this way, noting, first, that the real conservative objection is to the stimulus itself and, second, that Sanford and others have an obligation to the citizens of their states.
"In the end that is a decision [these governors] have to make," said Hart. The problem with the stimulus bill is the stimulus bill. The money has been allocated. There is nothing that anyone can do now to save that situation... There probably hasn't been a dime of stimulus money [that has made it to its destination] and already there are signs that the economy is coming back. So we are now left with this trillion dollar liability... That is the real problem."
Sanford defended his decision on Friday by continuing to note his concern that the stimulus would create a dependency on federal help that would outlast its funds. "What we're trying to do is look at what is most prudent with regard to our financial state in South Carolina," he told MSNBC. Asked later if he was planning to make a run for the White House he replied: "'I'm not running. I'm trying to survive the week."