BOCA RATON, Fla. — There were public preening and private courtship, opportunities to display political talents before large audiences, and quieter moments to woo donors and lay the foundation for what’s to come. When Republican governors gathered here this week to celebrate their victories in the midterm elections, they found presidential politics all around them.
Talk of the coming Republican nominating contest dominated corridor conversations throughout the Republican Governors Association conference. At times, it was difficult to walk through the grand Boca Raton Resort & Club without bumping into someone with presidential stars in their eyes. Texas Gov.-elect Greg Abbott laughed at the sight of it all. “I think everyone in this building is running for president,” he said.
Rarely have so many sitting Republican governors or former governors had their eyes on the presidency at the same time. It is both an embarrassment of riches for the party and a potentially difficult moment for the RGA.
“Obviously we have a lot of people here who are thinking about 2016,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who was elected as the new RGA chair on Thursday and will have to hold the organization together during the coming competition. “So that’s both good for the organization but also makes it a little bit more sensitive.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who commanded center stage at a number of the public and private events as the outgoing chair of the organization, addressed the question that was on everyone’s mind: What happens when these governors start going after one another on the presidential campaign trail?
“We are all friends,” said the likely candidate. “But let’s be fair. If a group of us decides to run for president, we’ll compete with each other. I don’t think competing with each other and being friends are mutually exclusive. . . . Anybody who’s going to run for president of the United States and who’s been a sitting governor and gone through statewide races understands the nature of competition.”
No one was making any declarations of candidacy in Florida. As Haslam noted, the prospective contenders felt they needed to be signaling their interest, “but not over the top at this point in time.” That will come next year, with candidates expected to launch their bids between early in the year and early summer.
Even the RGA leaders decided to highlight, rather than pretend otherwise, that the next phase within the organization will include a lengthy period of intraparty competition. On Wednesday afternoon, the RGA put five possible candidates — Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Mike Pence of Indiana, Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — on stage together. Raising the interest level another notch, the organization invited NBC’s Chuck Todd, the host of “Meet the Press,” to moderate the conversation.
It wasn’t exactly the first debate of the 2016 cycle, but it became something of a warm-up, and included a favored tactic from 2012 GOP presidential debates of attacking the moderator to score points with the partisan audience.
If joint appearances provide a venue for distinguishing one candidate from another, the first round went to Kasich. The Ohio governor zagged when the others zigged, warning against an overreaction to President Obama’s immigration action, defending expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare and imploring his party to find ways to solve big problems despite differences with the president.
At one point, he challenged Wisconsin’s Walker, who had given a distorted history of how President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans had been able to work together to balance the budget in the 1990s, suggesting it had come without brinksmanship. Kasich reminded Walker that the two sides came together only after a major clash that led to a government shutdown.
Then, after repeatedly differing with his colleagues, Kasich made up to the others on the stage with a closing soliloquy in which he cited their individual and collective attributes.
The governors as a group can be a powerful force in presidential nominating politics. Sixteen years ago, then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas drew support from a substantial number of fellow Republican governors early in the cycle, helping to make him the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination.
Right now, however, no one among the current group appears to have that kind of support among his peers, given that there are six sitting governors who may run and two others (former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee) who are considering a bid.
A reporter asked Christie if he was using the meeting to round up support. “You can’t possibly expect people to commit to you until you’ve committed,” he said. “So I wouldn’t be presumptuous to say to people, ‘If I decide to run, will you support me?’ and ‘Only if you say you will, I will.’ ”
Like many rank-and-file Republican voters, the governors who aren’t running are measuring their fellow governors and other prospective candidates from Congress or the private sector against former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, if she decides to run. They are trying to decide who could stand up to her in a general election and who could raise the $1 billion or so it would take to compete.
Christie starts with some advantages, having helped the RGA raise $106 million during the 2014 cycle while campaigning tirelessly around the country on behalf of his colleagues. In Florida, more than one governor went out of his way to lavish praise on Christie. Fellow governors praised him repeatedly for his efforts. Whether those nice words turn into commitments of support depends on his expected announcement.
Christie, who unlike the other prospective candidates was not granting interviews in Florida, appears capable of raising the money to go the distance, but with questions about whether his New Jersey style will export easily to the rest of the country and reservations about his ideology among some conservatives, no one was conceding too much to him.
All the prospective candidates in Florida handled questions about running differently. Pence said he was humbled even to be mentioned and was focused on his business at home. Christie was forthright in saying he’s looking hard. But he was also evasive, saying he would answer a question about whether he favors legal status for undocumented immigrants only if and when he became a candidate.
Perry stressed that, in contrast to 2012, he will be ready to run this time. “I was a bit arrogant in thinking that, just because I had been elected governor of Texas three times and in that role 12 years, that I could step into that role of candidate and stand up in front of the American people. . . . I spent the last 22 months in preparation.”
Perry will have one advantage over the others who were in Florida. Come January, he will no longer have a state to run, having decided to step down after a Texas record of 14 years in office. For Christie, Pence, Jindal, Kasich and Walker, next year will bring new budgets to write and pass, possible battles with legislators, and demands that will make travel to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere more difficult.
Walker said he will focus on Wisconsin business first and said he plans to move aggressively before making a final decision. Asked whether he will be visiting early states during this period, he said such trips are sometimes overrated as indicators of viability. “Sometimes in politics, I think people confuse motion with progress,” he said in an interview.
Instead, he said, tending to problems in Wisconsin will be key to his hopes. “My biggest strength as a potential candidate is what I’m doing as governor,” he said. “If things are good in Wisconsin, I continue to be a viable prospect. If they aren’t, it pretty much takes your name off the list.”
Walker also said that he begins with ample fundraising potential, thanks to having been forced to run a recall election in 2012 in addition to campaigns this year and in 2010. He said those who forced the recall might someday regret the unintended consequences of their actions.
“Not only do we have a significant network of large-dollar donors, like many of the folks here this week, we have probably one of the biggest donor lists in the country,” he said. “I’ve got donors in all 50 states.”
Whether those donors want Walker as their presidential nominee is another question, just one of many for him and the others who edged out into the limelight in Florida this week.