Chief correspondent

— Less than five weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa, Republican governors are still on the sidelines in the contest to decide who their presidential nominee will be in 2012.

Only a few governors have endorsed a candidate in the Republican race. The hesitance of the others suggests that, like many Republican voters, they have yet to find an ideal candidate. But in remaining neutral, the governors may be squandering the potential to have a significant influence in the outcome.

Presidential politics is part of the corridor talk here at the Republican Governors Association meeting here this week. But it has yet to dominate any of the private discussions of the governors, according to several state executives. Even governors who are backing a candidate are not pushing them with their colleagues.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shortly after deciding not to enter the race himself. And while he offered robust support for Romney during a press conference on Wednesday, he said he has not come to Orlando to twist arms in Romney’s behalf.

“I’m not sitting here with my Mitt button trying to bring everybody into the fold,” he told reporters. Doesn’t Romney need that help, he was asked. “That’s his job,” he replied. “He recruited me and he’ll recruit others. And if other governors want my opinion about why I did what I did, I’m happy to share that with them. But in the end, they’re not voting for me, they’re voting for him. He’s got to make that case to them and I know he’s working at it.”

During a press conference, governors praised one another for being bold and courageous in tackling the fiscal and economic problems in their states. When asked why they were not similarly courageous in getting behind a candidate, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the RGA chairman, said, “Some of us are taking a little wait-and-see approach through the debates and then maybe something later on.”

The most McDonnell would say is that he believes a governor or former governor has the best skill set to be president. Asked if he were ruling out former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has surged in the polls, he replied, “I just said in my opinion a governor would be the best executive and leader in the White House given the problems that ail the country. There are a lot of good candidates.”

Early state governors are taking different approaches. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has offered opinions about the race in his state. He upbraided Romney a few weeks ago for not spending enough time in the state, and he made clear Wednesday that he thinks Herman Cain has been hurt by the allegations of sexual impropriety. But he has remained neutral and continues to do so.

South Carolina looms as one of the biggest prizes among the early states. In contrast to Branstad, Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday, “I have said absolutely I will endorse and you will see me endorse.” Before Iowa? “Oh, absolutely,” she said.

Four years ago she backed Romney’s candidacy and he returned the favor by supporting her in a tough gubernatorial primary campaign last year. On Wednesday, Haley brushed aside questions about what may be influencing her decision. For example, she made an impassioned statement about illegal immigration, saying, “We are not a country that breaks the rules or allows anybody to break the rules... We are not going to allow anybody to get a free pass.”

She was then asked what she thought about Gingrich’s comments about a “humane” approach to some illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 25 years or more. “You just want me to tell you who I’m going to endorse and I’m not,” she said.

Two other sitting governors have endorsed Romney: Idaho’s Butch Otter and Nebraska’s Dave Heineman. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback have backed neighboring Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose state will vote fourth in the GOP race, said that when he was elected a year ago, he looked to Texas and the success the state had in creating jobs as a model for what he would try to do. But that has not translated into support for Perry’s presidential campaign.

He still may endorse a candidate but is in no hurry. He wants to see the candidates talk more about their plans to create jobs and wishes they all were making that an even bigger focus of the candidacies. “Let the process work,” he said. “Let’s see who comes through this and has the best plan.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who like Christie gave serious consideration to running in 2012, also sees no reason to hurry up with an endorsement. “I don’t see any particular value to anyone of my getting in [with an endorsement],” he said. “I want to see the best candidate emerge. I think it’s so essential that we have a big change of policy that I’m fine with the process that tests and challenges these folks.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he thinks he knows who the nominee will be, but, for his own political reasons at home, doesn’t plan to make an endorsement. Right now he sees a two-person race between Romney and Gingrich. In the end, he thinks Romney will prevail. “I still think it’s extremely likely that Mitt Romney is the nominee,” he said. “Most of the attacks that he would get during the general election have already been levied on him.”

Asked why he was so confident that Romney would prevail, he said, “Certainly he’s not the perfect candidate,” he said, noting that no one is. “I just think Romney has got this steady pace. He may not be lighting people up but he’s not doing anything to harm himself.”

Walker will remain neutral because he is facing a possible recall election. Opponents are gathering signatures at a rapid pace and he has no doubt they will succeed in putting a recall on the ballot for sometime next spring. Given that, he said, he’s not in a position to offend any Republican voter by taking sides in the presidential race.

“I’m the most liked governor in the country amongst Republicans,” he said. “I’m the most disliked amongst Democrats. If I’m going to win reelection, I can’t afford to have any of my base wander off.”

If Walker thinks he has the race scoped out, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says he and some of his colleagues don’t have a clue. “Nobody pretends they know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Barbour says there isn’t a front-runner and isn’t ready to call it a two-person race between Gingrich and Romney. “They certainly appear to be the two who have the best chance but to say it’s a two-man race is an overstatement,” he said.

To an old pro like Barbour, trying to see a winner is a low percentage pick. He said months ago that he likely would remain neutral and is sticking to that. “I think people are foolish to try to predict because it is unpredictable,” he said.