Members of the National Governors Association are meeting with President Obama today after a weekend black tie affair at the White House. It's fair to guess that more than a few of the guests took the opportunity to check out the place with an eye toward future occupancy.
One or more of them may live at 1600 someday. Before President Obama, four of the previous five presidents were governors. As recently as the last presidential cycle, the major Republican contenders included two former governors: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. A sitting governor, Sarah Palin, wound up as the vice presidential nominee.
But if the NGA has long been a forest of presidential timber, the current crop seems suddenly rather sparse.
Over the weekend, this gang of governors looked more like a battered raft of refugees than presidential contenders. Hard times are no kinder to governors than they are to presidents, and right now the sputtering recovery and stubborn unemployment numbers are weighing heavily on the state's most visible leaders.
Consumed with problems close to home, the governors have not been big players in the health care debate or other national issues in the past year. And the same dynamic affects their own personal ambitions.
Beyond the bad economic numbers, intraparty unrest and just plain bad timing seem to be putting the ultimate political prize beyond the gubernatorial grasp.
Consider the usual suspects — the governors from the 10 most populous states. Starting at the top, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is foreign-born, and so constitutionally barred from the presidency (or vice presidency). Thinking down the road, the same applies to Democrat Jennifer Granholm of Michigan.
But given that unemployment in their two states averages 13 percent, it's probably just as well.
Normally, Republicans might be promoting their incumbents from hyperpopulous Texas and Florida. Instead, those two men are locked in tough primary fights. Rick Perry, seeking a third term in Austin, is forced to fend off a popular senator and a Tea Party favorite in his primary next week. The road is even rougher for Charlie Crist in Florida, who now trails his rival for the Senate nomination in the GOP's August primary.
Democrats aren't looking for a presidential candidate these days, and that's lucky, considering their gubernatorial bench. Two of their current big-state incumbents are hobbled because they became governor via scandal. Democrat Pat Quinn of Illinois stepped in when Rod Blagojevich was impeached last year, and Democrat David Paterson took over in New York when Eliot Spitzer resigned over his use of call girls.
Quinn has now been nominated for a gubernatorial term in his own right, while Paterson has been embroiled in imbroglios of his own.
Somewhat happier Democrats are running the government in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Ted Strickland is battling to hang on to his current job in Columbus while Ed Rendell in Harrisburg is term-limited after this year. Both have firmly turned down shots at the national ticket in the past, and neither shows any symptoms of Potomac fever right now.
Rounding out the Top 10 most populous states are Georgia and North Carolina, both with governors named Perdue. Democrat Bev Perdue is just past her first year in office in North Carolina. Republican Sonny Perdue in Georgia (no relation) is winding up a sometimes troubled second term in office and, while he has been chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he has not made an overt move toward a national campaign.
Looking beyond the megastates, there are several governors and former governors with thoughts of Iowa and New Hampshire in the near future. One even has an exploratory committee up and running already for 2012.
He is two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, moderate enough to win in his blue state in the past, but lately breathing fire to the right. He's leaving his job at the end of the year, despite his eligibility for another term. He has that in common with three other potential 2012 candidates — Romney, Huckabee and Palin — all of whom could have been governor longer but opted out. The governorship might be a good line on a resume, but it's best not to let it be the bottom line.
Pawlenty came to town last week to speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he veered into social issues and assured the crowd that "God is in charge." Nonetheless, he received just 6 percent in the CPAC presidential straw poll, which was won by libertarian Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, the ideological antithesis of the gubernatorial model.
All the same, there are those who believe a governor will be the next GOP nominee, and they still look South for one. Haley Barbour is riding high as governor of Mississippi and can point to his success as chairman of the Republican National Committee in the early 1990s, when he helped engineer his party's comeback in the 1994 elections. Barbour has lately been known to linger on the thought of a return to Washington, although he still says a bid for president is unlikely.
One Southern Republican who had attracted speculation, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, saw his stock crash after his widely panned response to an Obama address in 2009. While Jindal has yet to find his way back onto the shortlist for 2012, he remains on the plus side of public feeling at home. And at 38, he has plenty of cycles ahead of him.
That's more than can be said for another governor who was once a mentionee, Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Sanford's marital meltdown was national news for his secret tryst in South America and his rambling televised confession. But he has scarcely been the only governor in the doghouse. Republican Jim Gibbons in Nevada recently reached a settlement with his wife of 23 years, who accused him of serial affairs, including one with a Playboy model.
Not many other governors can match that kind of publicity. But not many inspire the kind that makes governors into presidents, either.