Governors lining up early for Oval Office

Looking forward to 2008, parties weigh 'electability' factor of half a dozen governors.

Perhaps Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's ears were tingling when President Bush offered a toast to the nation's governors at a black-tie dinner last weekend.

"Many of our presidents have first served as governors," noted the former governor of Texas, who invoked the name of Thomas Jefferson, also a Virginian and the first governor to ascend to the US presidency.

At least a dozen other chief executives dining on beef tenderloin Sunday night probably felt that same frisson of possibility, given that four of the last five presidents were once governors. And with the 2008 presidential nominating races for both parties wide open, now is the time for dreamers. It seems wildly early, but in fact it isn't: All political eyes are already on Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, hosts of the earliest contests and states where potential contenders are already testing out themes and hiring campaign talent.

Ignore for a moment the Democrats' nominal front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who hasn't come close to saying she's running, but has nearly total name recognition and snap-of-the fingers fundraising clout. Already, the e-word - electability - has entered the conversation among activists, and if the early energy seeps away to someone who might have easier entree in the South than Mrs. Clinton, that's where Governor Warner's name comes in.

Warner is a Democrat running a Republican-leaning Southern state, and as chairman of the National Governors Association, which is holding its winter meeting here, this is his moment in the national spotlight. Like most governors who may have 2008 dreams, he sidesteps the "are you running" question, but is all over the more generic issue of what it takes for Democrats to win in red states.

The answer is,"the same as it takes for Republicans to win in blue states: an ability to work across party lines, to break on issues of conviction with the traditional orthodoxy in your national party," says the multimillionaire former businessman. "Most Americans are much more in the middle than pundits like to say.... That states are red or blue is just not the case."

Other Republican-leaning states with Democratic governors include New Mexico and Iowa - and perhaps not coincidentally, their chief executives also appear on short lists of possible presidential contenders. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is of Hispanic descent, has reportedly already told party leaders he will run. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a finalist for the vice presidential slot in 2004, says he won't run for a third term as governor - which positions him to focus on possibly running for president.

"He's been focusing on an agenda in this state that would position him to run as a centrist Democrat," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.

Governor Vilsack's agenda includes balancing his budget via spending cuts rather than tax increases, boosting economic development, and protecting K-12 education. "I think he's hoping to have things go well enough in next two years, so he leaves office with a record that doesn't haunt him on the trail," says Dr. Squire.

Govs. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee and Mike Easley of North Carolina - also both Democrats - have started appearing on lists, but there is less presidential buzz around them at the moment.

In the Republican camp, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts may be the most overt about his presidential ambitions so far - judging by speaking engagements in early nominating states - though he denies he has made a decision. If he does decide to run, neighboring New Hampshire could prove problematic for him - and if it did, that could spell the end of a candidacy.

"Republicans in New Hampshire are asking, 'How could he be a true conservative Republican and be elected governor of Massachusetts?' " says New Hampshire-based pollster Dick Bennett.

In recent speeches outside Massachusetts, Governor Romney has appeared to try to shore up his conservative credentials by distancing himself from his state's liberalism on social policies - including gay marriage. But if he disses his state too much, that could make it hard to work with Democrats on the home front, which in turn could hurt his reelection chances in 2006, analysts say. A defeated governor hardly makes for an effective presidential candidate.

Also among the "mentioned" on the Republican side are Govs. Bill Owens of Colorado and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. In the last election, Republicans didn't do well in Colorado, which may limit Governor Owens's potential ambitions. As for the very Southern Governor Barbour, New Hampshire political analysts have a hard time seeing him playing well in their northern state.

"I don't see Haley Barbour as a door-to-door or living-room campaigner here," says political scientist Linda Fowler of Dartmouth College, mentioning other southern politicians in the recent past who haven't translated well in the Granite State, such as former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

No list of GOP governors thinking of running would be complete without New York's George Pataki, but for now the conventional wisdom holds that any Republican who favors abortion rights can't win the GOP nomination. So for now, that also rules out one of the party's most popular figures, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

In the realm of famous Republican governors who insist they're not running - and may actually mean it - there's Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jeb Bush of Florida. Speaking on "Meet the Press" Sunday, Governor Schwarzenegger stated flatly that "my goal is not to run for president," then seemed to back that up by refusing to answer any questions that didn't have to do with California. The Austrian-born actor also maintains he is not behind any of the efforts to amend the Constitution to allow naturalized citizens to run for president.

Governor Bush of Florida, brother of the president, has also said no to 2008. Some political analysts think this is a wise choice, surmising that the American public may be tired of the Bush family by the time the current President Bush finishes his term. But some Republicans are hoping he will change his mind.

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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