Miami — The official focus at this, the annual gathering of the nation’s Republican governors, may be about the initiatives and innovations taking place in state capitals from Fargo to Tallahassee, but the lobbyists, consultants, reporters, and chief executives themselves gathered here at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa are just as focused on politics as policy.
Specifically, the topic at hand is the already-intense jockeying between Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Arizona senator John McCain for a leg up on the 2008 presidential nomination. Romney is the outgoing chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association (RGA) and has been the focal point of the conference. He’s spent much of his time presiding over the various sessions that comprise the public schedule of the gathering, but also has held private meetings with key donors to the organization and his fellow governors. Romney is joined here by a widening circle of supporters, including his Boston-based gubernatorial and Commonwealth PAC staff, RGA officials, and a group of veteran Washington hands.
Refusing to cede the spotlight to his early rival, McCain swooped into south Florida for a full slate of his own engagements. Romney backers scoffed at the attempt to steal their thunder. “It was a cheap C.R. move,” one prominent supporter of Romney sniffed, likening the senator’s appearance to College Republican tactics.
Regardless of intentions, the Arizonan made the most of his time in the area. He held a series of closed-door talks at the resort with different GOP governors, seeking to build support for his potential campaign. He also met with a group of Republican state attorneys general who were at a meeting of their own in Ft. Lauderdale. McCain later held a public reception, billed as a tribute to the Republican governors, away from the Doral. Appearing with McCain on stage a few miles down the road in Miami Lakes were Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Vermont governor Jim Douglas, Florida governor-elect Charlie Crist, and Florida congressmen Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.
While some continue to play coy about their 2008 intentions, a few allegiances have been made clear here. Sources tell National Review Online that Pawlenty, who just narrowly won reelection, will support McCain’s bid and is actively engaged in what is now the senator’s exploratory committee. Additionally, Lincoln Diaz-Balart said that both he and his brother will support McCain, and that they’ll be joined by the third Cuban-American member of Congress from this area, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In separate interviews, Daniels, Douglas, and Crist all had warm words for McCain, but stopped short of declaring their allegiance.
Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, is also being courted by the leading White House contenders. Barbour singled out McCain for praise earlier this year at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis and was widely thought to be joining his fellow Mississippian Trent Lott in getting on the Straight Talk Express. But asked Thursday if he would make an endorsement, Barbour complained about the primary process, saying it “needs to be less compressed and later not sooner.” And, in doing his part to change that, Barbour said he was “not going to think about endorsing until after” his own reelection campaign next November. Two sources, however, tell NRO that Barbour is waiting on the March filing period for gubernatorial candidates in his state to determine whether he’ll face serious Democratic opposition in his reelection next year. Should no credible candidate emerge, these sources say, Barbour could make an endorsement earlier than November.
Romney’s camp has been more tight-lipped about who is in their corner among the gubernatorial ranks, but one close supporter said that the RGA chair has the as-of-yet undeclared support of around a dozen of his colleagues. Among them is Missouri Governor Matt Blunt. The first-term governor said in an interview today that he would make a public endorsement “probably in the next few days.” Asked for which candidate, Blunt replied that he had “a great deal of admiration for Gov. Romney.” Blunt, the son of House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, said he wants “to elect a conservative candidate” and Romney is “the most conservative of those” in the field who are “credible.” Asked if McCain was also a conservative candidate, Blunt chose to talk about Romney.
Both Blunt and Pawlenty are considered rising Republican stars. Each is young — Pawlenty is 46 and Blunt just 36 — and each has won tough campaigns in highly competitive states. Pawlenty, by coming out for McCain early, could boost his stock as a potential running mate. Blunt, for his part, faces the prospect of a hard-fought reelection campaign in 2008.
Perhaps the biggest fish in the GOP’s gubernatorial barrel, however, said he’s not likely to weigh in on the presidential contest. Outgoing Florida governor Jeb Bush said that he “really admire[s] all three of the candidates,” referring to Romney, McCain, and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Bush, who said he was going to “take some time off” and “get out of the way” of his successor, told reporters that he couldn’t “envision” a scenario in which he would offer his support to one of the contenders.
— Jonathan Martin is National Review Online’s national political reporter.