In one of the fastest-starting presidential campaigns in history, one group of politicians has not kept pace: the nation's governors.
The most successful route to the White House in recent elections has run through the governors' mansions, but in the 2008 campaign, state chief executives are struggling to fight their way into the top tier of candidates in both the Republican and Democratic races.
This weekend, two events highlighted the lack of gubernatorial influence in the opening stages of the 2008 campaign. The first was Friday's announcement by former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack that he was dropping out of the Democratic race less than three months after formally launching his campaign.
The other was yesterday's opening of the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, where few attendees expressed any desire to get involved on behalf of a presidential candidate.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) said that because of the heavily front-loaded nomination calendar, he and others may have more to lose than gain by picking a candidate now.
"Why risk ticking off the eventual nominee when there's no value to it?" Rendell asked.
One Republican governor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about the GOP race, said that in the absence of a strong front-runner in the traditional sense, any of the leading candidates could end up faltering, making an early endorsement far riskier than it was when Republican governors got behind the candidacy of George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign.
"They realize those guys running for president need you just as much in October as they need you now," he said. "So if you think this is a very fragile playing field, then it would be smart to wait."
Governors from states with early contests where endorsements might count heavily are, for now, staying neutral. Both Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) and New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) plan to stay neutral at this point and are more focused on preserving their states' roles at the front of the process. They met yesterday to discuss the 2008 calendar, rather than the candidates.
The Democratic contest is now dominated by senators, with New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois' Barack Obama the candidates drawing the most attention. Challenging them, particularly in several early states, is former North Carolina senator John Edwards. Two veteran senators, Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Connecticut's Christopher J. Dodd, hope to capitalize if the front-runners stumble.
Just one governor is in the Democratic race: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is seen as a long-shot candidate despite one of the deepest resumes of anyone in the field.
Vilsack wasn't even the first former governor to fall out of the Democratic race. Last fall, after receiving a rush of attention as a potential contender but before he could even announce his candidacy, former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner said he was not interested in seeking the presidency in 2008.
Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh had planned to use his record as governor as a central selling point in his campaign. But the Democrat got out of the race last December, just a few weeks after establishing a presidential exploratory committee.
The Republican race has followed a similar path. The two leaders in the polls are Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who passed up running for a second term to seek the presidency, is seen by some party insiders as the third candidate in the GOP top tier, but he is not well know nationally at this point.
The GOP field includes two other former governors. One is Wisconsin's Tommy G. Thompson, who was one of the most innovative state executives of the 1990s. The other is Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Both face uphill bids.
Rendell said the absence of more strong governors in the two fields may be nothing more than an anomaly in this campaign cycle. If California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were not constitutionally prohibited from running or if former Florida governor Jeb Bush had a name other than Bush, either would be considered a top-tier candidate in the GOP field, he said.
On the Democratic side, the governors of vote-rich New York and Ohio were only just sworn into office, and several potential candidates from other battleground states faced challenging reelection campaigns in 2006 and opted out of the presidential race. "You can't run for president and run for reelection," Rendell said. "You have to make the choice that Governor Romney made."
So far only a handful of governors have endorsed presidential candidates. McCain has the support of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., while Romney has the support of Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt. No governor has announced support for Giuliani. Among Democrats, Obama has the support of Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, while Clinton has not yet rolled out the endorsement of any Democratic governor.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is among those who are in no hurry to pick a candidate. "I like a lot of them," he said. "I like Bill Richardson a lot. Hillary's taking up the oxygen and a lot of the money in all the rooms. Barack could be the transformational leader that everybody's looking for. Maybe it's him. Edwards, he might be the one to come up through the middle. So give it a few months."