The formal agenda of the Republican Governors Conference here includes such topics as "Energy: What the States are Doing" and "Fiscal Responsiblity in the States."
Not the kind of stuff that normally would draw 10 news people for every governor. But the 16 Republican governors meeting here are being covered by 160 news representatives who are more interested in the conference's most pressing yet unlisted agenda item: Who is for whom for president?
The answer, for all except three of the governors, is: No one is for anyone, yet.
"A lot of us are simply waiting to get a fix [on the candidates]," said Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken, one of the undecideds. Ronald Reagan's campaign staff had hoped for Milliken's endorsement last week.
"We have a presidential preference primary in May," said Indiana Gov. Otis R. Bowen, "and I expect to listen to the people and follow."
"Pennsylvania is keeping its powder dry. We want to judge the candidates over the long run," and Gov. Richard Thornburgh.
For whatever reasons, that is essentially what most of the nation's Republican governors are doing as their party experiences the rare opportunity of having a multitude of candidates to choose from -- as well as a lingering affection for a former president, Gerald Ford, who virtually has ruled out an active candidacy.
Only three governors present have publicly committed themselves to any candidate: Vermont's Richard Snelling for former president Ford, Nebraska's Charles Thone for Ronald Reagan and Lamar Alexander for a fellow Tennessean, Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr.
(Sixteen of the 18 Republican governors are in Austin. Alaska's Jay Hammond and Nevada's Robert List are absent.)
"The governors are in the same position as a lot of people," said Republican National Chairman Bill Brock. "They want to see the candidates tested in caucuses and primaries to measure the depth of appeal and the breadth of appeal."
All of the indecision is being limned by reporters whose buttonhole conversations with governors frequently intrude on the official proceedings.
The conversations elicit reactions ranging from Ohio's james A. Rhodes' initial reluctance to discuss president politics to Thornburgh's observation that he is "not sure at this juncture that Gov. Reagan is the best candidate for our parochial interests in Pennsylvania."
The next step, after registering the uncommitted postures of the governors, is trying to measure what this all means for the acknowledged front-runner, Reagan, whose views after 10 years of campaigning are rather well known and who did not show up for this gathering.
Some say it hurts them that Reagan hasn't won the public support of more Republican governors. Others say the candidates farther back in the pack need more endorsements if they are to overtake the former California governor. n.t"They're [the governors] saying they hope there's somebody else," offered a campaign worker from one of Reagan's rivals for the presidential nomination.
The governors did show affection for former president Gerald Ford today in a question-and-answer session after Ford had raked the Carter administration over the coals of inflation. Ford recalled Jimmy Carter's Sept. 14, 1976, "misery index" of American life, in which candidate Carter added figures for unemployment and inflation and gave Ford a 16 on the misery scale.
Ford tallied today's inflation and unemployment rates and noted that Carter's "misery index" was a record 19 plus.
Moments later Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus asked Ford whether he would be available if his country needed him to solve such problems as the economy. Ford basically repeated his statements that he would become a candidate only under unforeseen circumstances.
Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger is to address the governors Tuesday.