By Tim Gaynor
SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (Reuters) - Republican governors gathering for an annual conference in Arizona on Thursday sought to portray state leaders as the can-do wing of the party as they face elections, distancing themselves from colleagues unable to break the gridlock in Washington.
"While D.C. talks, governors act. That's really the takeaway," South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told reporters on the second day of the Republican Governors Association meeting in Scottsdale. "We are looking at the chaos that is Washington D.C., yet we're looking at the states that are more stable than they've ever been."
Haley praised the "courage and fight" of state leaders as she spoke at the gathering of the association, which is the principal political organization of the 30 Republican U.S. governors.
The three-day conference at a Scottsdale resort is focused on strategy and key policy goals that include issues dealing with the economy, immigration, gay marriage, abortion and gun control. In 36 gubernatorial contests next year, 20 Republican governors are up for re-election, several in very competitive races.
The association's new chairman, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was re-elected by a landslide earlier this month. He sought to put daylight between Republican state leaders and lawmakers in Washington dogged by embarrassingly low poll ratings following a partial government shutdown last month.
"What I have seen here is the incredible contrast between what is being discussed here and accomplished by these people ... as opposed to what is going on in Washington D.C.," Christie, who was elected to chair the influential association on Thursday, told reporters.
"Everybody up here has strongly held convictions about the issues that we care about and that are important to the people of our individual states. But we also know that we have a job to do."
Among the recent polls was one from Washington Post-ABC News, showing 85 percent disapproval for the job Congress was doing, while only 12 percent of respondents said they approved.
Indiana's Mike Pence, who spent 12 years on Capitol Hill before being elected governor last year, highlighted what he said was an "eye-opening" difference between Washington and state leaders.
"The cure for what ails this nation will come more from our nation's state capitals than it ever will from our nation's capital," Pence said.
Earlier this week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the association's outgoing chairman, touted state leaders' potential to revive the Republican Party's "badly damaged" brand by leading with "successful records that can help us win elections again."
Christie, seen a strong front-runner as the Republican choice in the 2016 presidential election, said his criticism was not aimed only at members of his party in Congress but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
"The frustration that many of us feel is that they are a headwind rather than a tailwind - and that's not productive," Christie told reporters. "My view has always been that when a Republican deserves criticism, he or she gets it; when a Democrat deserves criticism, he or she gets it; when they deserve praise, they get it too - but honestly and directly."
Chairing the association raises Christie's national profile. Asked if he thought the party's next presidential nominee should come from the ranks of governors rather than Congress, he cautioned that state leaders had "2014 to deal with," and planning for 2016 this year would be at "our own peril."
Haley was more direct: "What I always think is important are results, and it's clearly hard for somebody out of D.C. to talk about results when they can't even stay open ... For me, I always prefer governors."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Scott Malone, Gunna Dickson and Cynthia Osterman)