For 2008 Race, Where Are the Governors? If things get desperate for the Republicans, yet another Bush may be running for the White House in 2008. But the field of big-state governors looks otherwise thin for the next presidential contest, Ron Elving says in the latest Watching Washington column.
NPR logo For 2008 Race, Where Are the Governors?

For 2008 Race, Where Are the Governors?

One of the more reliable axioms about presidential elections is this: If you want to win the White House, you're better off running as a governor than a senator.

Maybe it's because governors are executives who govern as individuals, while senators tend to talk and compromise and act in groups. But the one undeniable fact is that governors tend to win.

Think of Governor Bush, Governor Clinton, Governor Reagan, Governor Carter. And before that Roosevelt, Wilson, McKinley and Cleveland. Yes, Presidents Nixon, Johnson and Truman once were senators. But all left the Senate for the vice presidency, which made their presidencies possible. The only presidents elected straight from the Senate were John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920.

And that poses a problem for both major political parties in 2008, because the roster of big-state or big-name governors gearing up for the next presidential round looks remarkably thin.

Not so long ago, the governors of California and New York were more or less automatic candidates for president, with the governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois close behind. Nowadays, that roster would be more likely to include the governors of Texas and Florida.

But unless presidential brother Jeb Bush changes his current (official) stance and pursues the presidency from Florida, none of these mega-states looks likely to field a current or former governor in the 2008 cycle.

The current chief executive in the Golden State is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a charismatic figure who thrilled the 2004 Republican convention but who cannot be president because he was born in Austria. (Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, born in Canada, is also out of the running.)

It is conceivable that Schwarzenegger could leave his governorship after the 2006 election, and that a new governor could be in office by early 2007. But if so, he or she will be unlikely to leave the state immediately after inauguration to take up temporary residence in Iowa and New Hampshire.

New York Republicans have in recent years dared to speak again of nominating one of their own for president. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the hero of 9-11, may yet run. But the Republican Gov. George Pataki has receded dramatically as a potential national figure and may not even seek re-election in 2006.

As for Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, their governors show every sign of concentrating on their immediate political situations. Ed Rendell, the New Yorker who came to Philadelphia for college and stayed to be mayor and governor has made no show of forming a larger organization — perhaps preferring to await a running mate draft.

Ohio's Bob Taft is enduring a Job-like second term at present, beset by intraparty rivalries and fundraising scandals, while Illinois' Rod Blagojevich is still struggling to extricate himself from Chicago politics and establish himself statewide.

It doesn't get much better in Texas, where Rick Perry inherited the governorship from George W. Bush but has been unable to achieve as much control over a totally Republican legislature as Bush had when control was split between the parties. Recent struggles over school financing have forced a special session of the legislature and brought Perry's own standing to a low ebb. For a time, he was in danger of losing his own re-nomination in 2006 to the state's senior senator, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Which brings us back to Jeb Bush in Florida. For the time being, the man whom some consider the true political talent in his family is holding the presidential question at bay. It makes sense for him to do so. No matter how badly he may wish to complete the trifecta begun by his father and brother, Bush III stands a better chance of doing so if he waits for the party to come to him. That could be in 2012 or later, as Jeb is only 52.

It could also happen in 2008, if no real frontrunner emerges, or if the party needs a familiar name to round out the ticket. After all, someone named Bush has been on there in six of the last seven national elections.

Rounding out the Top 10 list of states (by population) Georgia has a first-term governor in Sonny Perdue who is focused on winning re-election in 2006, and New Jersey has an acting governor who will probably give way this fall to Sen. Jon Corzine. Could this self-financing Democrat be forsaking one high office for another that offers a better presidential launch? The only question here seems to be whether 2008 would be too soon.

But if we move past the mega-states, the prospects actually multiply. Indeed, the mid-sized Virginia (12th in population) now has both its current and former governors showing interest. Gov. Mark Warner is a Democrat in a red state who's making a strong impression around the country, especially in other red states tired of being written off in national elections.

Former Virginia Gov. George Allen has been gaining altitude among the Republican mentionees. Allen was a good enough governor to move on to the Senate, where he has helped other social conservatives keep the heat high under Majority Leader Bill Frist. (As a presidential hopeful himself, Frist might well have been better off running for governor of Tennessee than holding down the thankless job he has now.)

Someone from Massachusetts usually runs for president in the Democratic Party, but Calvin Coolidge was the last governor from the state to get the nomination in the GOP. The current governor, Mitt Romney, hopes to prove his party is still alive in New England while winning the hearts of red state Republicans with his Mormon family values.

Down in the really small states, those with just single digits in the Electoral College, you have two more governors to keep an eye on. There's Bill Richardson in New Mexico, the Hispanic-American Democrat with Washington experience, and Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, the Republican Baptist minister who has lost more than 100 pounds through diet and exercise since taking office.

One thing for certain about Huckabee, you can't tell him a governor from a little state like his can't be president.