Governors Test Iowa's Waters at Meeting

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, left, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack defended Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, left, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack defended Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucus. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

DES MOINES, July 16 -- The nation's governors assembled here this weekend for discussions about changing high schools, restructuring Medicaid and protecting the homeland, but they could not escape -- and did not really try to -- reminders of this state's role in presidential politics.

At Saturday morning's opening news conference, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) welcomed the media with a reference to the state's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. With everyone baking under the July sun, Vilsack said, "For those national media folks who are used to coming here only in the month of January, this sort of shows you it's not always cold and freezing in this state."

As he spoke, Vilsack was flanked by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the National Governors Association. All three just happen to be thinking about running for president three years from now.

After opening statements that included much admiration for the welcoming citizens of Iowa and a look at the weekend agenda, the governors took questions. More time was spent on the future of the caucuses than on education or health care.

Vilsack mounted a quick defense of Iowa's place at the front of the calendar, currently under attack by a Democratic National Committee commission that was, coincidentally, meeting in Washington. Then the two out-of-state governors rushed to defend Iowa's prized place on the calendar, with Warner calling it a "role of stewardship" that ought to be preserved.

Warner, Huckabee and Vilsack are not the only governors scheduled to participate over the weekend who may have a longer-term interest in the citizens of Iowa. Others include Democrats Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee and Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George E. Pataki of New York and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

In different ways, these potential candidates were doing some gentle politicking. Pataki was up early Saturday morning for a stroll through a downtown farmer's market, chatting with growers and buyers, the closest he could get to understanding Iowa's agricultural economy and rural life. Huckabee, in his capacity as the next National Governors Association chairman, hosted a media dinner on Friday night to talk about his health care agenda for the coming year. Inevitably, he also talked about 2008.

"The honest answer is I'm not ruling anything out, but I'm not, as some people in my own state think, that I'm obsessed with it and that I've got a headquarters in an underground bunker," he said, noting that a year ago no one even had him on a list of potential candidates.

Huckabee also admonished reporters about trying to create a story that did not really exist. "There's a sense in which people in the press are looking to find more drama than is here," he said. "Are there some people interested in the presidency that are here? Sure. Will there be some testing of the waters? Unquestionably. Is that what's driving most people in their everyday thoughts? I don't think so."

Vilsack said he was not bothered that his fellow Democrats -- governors and non-governors alike -- were streaming into his state to check out the political environment. In 1992, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) ran for president, his rivals stayed out of Iowa, reducing the role of the caucuses to an asterisk in the process. Nobody thinks that will happen in 2008, least of all Vilsack. He said Saturday morning that he will encourage everyone to come and compete.

With presidential politics in the background, the governors began working over a closed-door lunch, where the main topics were Medicaid and national identity cards. The governors have put together a bipartisan proposal for restructuring the state-federal Medicaid health care program, whose rapid growth continues to strain state budgets, but Congress has shown little interest in embracing it. On Monday, the governors will hear from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and pose plenty of questions about the ID cards, including who will pay for them, Washington or the states.

"There's not a consensus on the topic but a high level of concerns," Romney said after the luncheon discussion.

The opening plenary session picked up where the National Governors Association winter meeting left off, with a discussion of education and the global economy. The speakers included New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman, who ended his presentation by noting that 30 years ago, given the choice between growing up as a B student in Des Moines or a genius in Beijing or Bangalore, India, nearly everyone would have chosen the B student in Des Moines. Today, he said, because of the technology revolution, being a B student in Des Moines -- or anywhere else in the United States -- may not be enough to compete in the global economy.


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