Stateline Story

Govs Choosing Sides Early In Presidential Race

  • October 13, 1999
  • By Joseph Giordono

When Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull announced her endorsement of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential bid last month, she became the 24th of the 31 (counting Bush) Republican governors to do so. Though that number bodes well for the Bush campaign, some statehouse watchers doubt it will have much impact on in-state politics for the governors.

A quick look at the list of endorsements reveals that of the 24 governors, none will be up for reelection before 2001. The only Republican governor supporting Bush (though not yet formally endorsing him) who is up for reelection next year is Utah's Mike Leavitt -- and his race is likely to be a no-contest.

"As far as Leavitt is concerned, he could join up with Jesse Ventura and endorse Donald Trump and probably not be affected too adversely. But for most of the other governors, this decision [to endorse Bush] is made a lot easier by the fact that it will most likely be long forgotten by the time they run again," said Dan Gresch, a former University of Utah political science professor and veteran Utah political consultant.

While he has made it abundantly clear that he supports Bush's nomination, Leavitt has deferred from making an official endorsement out of respect for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who is pursuing an underdog bid for the Republican nomination.

"Obviously we have a situation here with Senator Hatch running, so while I have not made any formal endorsement, it is no secret that I have been and will continue to help Governor Bush," Leavitt said.

The other Republican governors who have not formally endorsed Bush are North Dakota's Ed Schafer, New Mexico's Gary Johnson, New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, Mississippi's Kirk Fordice and West Virginia's Cecil Underwood.

The support of Leavitt and Hull presents an interesting case, as Bush's rivals for the Republican nomination include popular senators from both Utah and Arizona. How will the relationships between Hull and John McCain and Leavitt and Hatch be affected?

According to Leavitt and Hull, there won't be any effect.

Leavitt said he has already been active in consulting for the Bush campaign, and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Vicki Varela, was recently named Rocky Mountain regional campaign chair. Despite that, both he and Hatch have an understanding that Utah's interests come above the campaign, Leavitt said.

According to Gresch, Leavitt would almost immediately endorse Bush when, and if, Hatch drops out of the race.

Although Hull insisted that her endorsement of Bush over McCain was not a slap at the war-hero senator, she repeatedly sidestepped explaining exactly why she chose to back Bush.

McCain vowed that "no matter what happens, he and I will work for the betterment of Arizona as we have in the past," Hull said at the press conference announcing her support for Bush.

Bush was slightly less diplomatic in his analysis of the situation.

"I've got some advice for anybody who's running for president. If you decide to run, make sure you get the governor on your side," he said.

Bush clearly understands the importance of Hull's endorsement in Arizona, especially given the fact that most other elected Republican officials, including the House Speaker, Senate President and Secretary of State have already endorsed McCain.

Hull's endorsement is likely based on her belief that Bush has a better chance of getting elected, said John Rhodes, a former U.S. House Minority Leader and an Arizona native.

"I, and a lot of others, like McCain and would endorse him for anythinganything except president that is, because I believe only Bush has a change of retaking the White House from the Democrats," Rhodes said.

In addition to his colleagues in the governors' mansions, Bush has been effective at garnering the support of state legislators. As of this week, Bush has been endorsed by over 50 percent of the Republican members in 25 state legislatures.

That, in turn, has helped him to pile up his record-shattering campaign war chest. The night he received Hull's endorsement, Bush's campaign held a fund-raising dinner sponsored by state legislators that his staff said took in over $200,000.

Though that might sound like a drop in the bucket, it is events like this that have helped Bush amass $54 million at the end of the third quarter of 1999.

Bush is the only Republican presidential contender who has been endorsed by a sitting governor. But one of his prospective opponents on the Democratic side has been busy courting state executives as well.

Vice President Al Gore has garnered endorsements from 8 of the 17 Democratic governors. They are: Alabama's Don Siegelman, California's Gray Davis, Georgia's Roy Barnes, Hawaii's Ben Cayetano, Indiana's Frank O'Bannon, Kentucky's Paul Patton, Maryland's Parris Glendening, and Washington's Gary Locke.

Of those governors, Patton is up for reelection this year and O'Bannon is expected to run for a second term in 2000.