For more than three decades, the National Governors' Association has assembled on presidential election years as one of its members made a bid for the White House — a Carter or a Reagan, a Dukakis, a Clinton or a Bush.
Not this time.
With two senators as the presumed nominees of their respective parties, the governors have been consigned to the running-mate heap. There, along with others, they are being picked over for a job described by Depression-era Vice President John Nance Garner as "not worth a bucket of warm spit" — yet one that's a heartbeat away from the presidency.
So no wonder that the governors and former governors who gathered this weekend for the NGA's centennial congregation eyed each other for telltale hints. Would this be a showcase for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing NGA chairman who is often mentioned as a possible pick for Republican John McCain? How about Pennsylvania Democrat Ed Rendell, the host of the confab and its incoming chairman?
No one tipping their hand
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, himself a finalist in Democrat John Kerry's vice presidential sweepstakes in 2004, studied both of their welcoming speeches. And when moderator and historian Richard Norton Smith playfully asked which governor might have an interest in the vice presidency, Vilsack turned to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat said to have caught the eye of Barack Obama's campaign.
"Kathleen, do you want to answer that question?" he needled her.
No one tipped a hand, if there was a hand to show.
Pawlenty turned aside reporters' questions about his political future. Rendell insisted he had no interest in the vice presidency. Utah's Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman and Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano said neither campaign had approached them.
Sebelius made herself scarce. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican whom McCain often praises, was at work in Baton Rouge. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who's been helping former rival McCain lately, didn't show. And Virginia's Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, mentioned as a top prospect for Obama, coyly divulged that "I never talk about my conversations with the campaign."
Kaine did allow that he and Obama formed an early bond upon realizing that both their mothers were from El Dorado, Kan., a town of less than 13,000 people 30 miles east of Wichita.
How did he feel being the object of running-mate speculation?
"It's weird," Kaine said. "It's flattering. I never thought it would happen and it still doesn't seem that likely to me."
But does it make sense that he would be considered?
"I know Virginia is key and I know I can help there."
Do governors make the best prospects for the second spot on the ticket?
"I'm going to stay away from giving the campaign advice on that."
Others weren't so reticent.
"The running mates of both of them are going to be governors," predicted Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who was the state's governor in the 1990s. "First of all, with all due respect, none of them (Obama or McCain) have any management experience."
Governors as political executives
Indeed, governors as political executives have more in common with presidents than senators do. As Smith, the historian, told them, "What sets you apart from legislators is that you are constantly making decisions." And these days, many have even more hands on foreign policy experience than senators sitting on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Kaine was leaving Sunday on a trade mission to Poland, London and Ireland.
"I deal with trade issues with Mexico and Canada all the time, so you have that," Napolitano said in an interview. "You're the commander in chief of your National Guard and, in this context, many of us have been to Iraq and Afghanistan. We've been deploying Guard over there. We talk to the families of those who have died over there. So I think the current crop of governors has more relevant foreign policy experience perhaps than our predecessors."
Napolitano offered three characteristics for a good running mate — he or she can step into the presidency if needed, shares the political and policy values of the nominee and can help the ticket expand the electoral map.
Asked if she met her own standards, she demurred. "I don't answer those questions," she said.
To hear Vilsack describe a campaign's selection process, vetting a potential running mate is one step shy of violating the Army interrogation manual.
"You turn over virtually everything you've ever done, ever said, virtually everything your spouse has ever done, ever said," he said.
Then comes the interview with the vetters.
"In my case, it was seven hours," he said. "My wife and I were in the room and there were five or seven lawyers in the room. They'll walk you in and say, OK, we've got a question about your tax return, we have a question about this stock that you sold, or we have a questions about this speech that you gave or this vote that took or this veto that you made."
Governors or former governors have been far more common at the top of the ticket. Georgia's Jimmy Carter in 1976, California's Ronald Reagan in 1980, Massachusetts' Michael Dukakis in 1988, Arkansas' Bill Clinton in 1992 and Texas' George W. Bush in 2000.
The last time a governor was a running mate was in 1968 when Maryland's Spiro Agnew ran on the ticket with Richard Nixon. Agnew was forced to resign in 1973 in the midst of a bribery scandal.
"Maybe that's why," Vilsack said of the 40-year hiatus. "It took that long to forget."