Stateline Story

Govs Start to Back 2008 Candidates

In early maneuvering for the 2008 run for the White House, 11 governors already have lined up behind candidates, providing ground troops and political donors needed to win the presidency while at the same time giving them an edge for plum spots if they make the right pick.

New York's U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Arizona's U.S. Sen. John McCain have garnered the most gubernatorial endorsements with three each.

Stumping for Clinton are Democratic Govs. Martin O'Malley of Maryland, Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Eliot Spitzer of Clinton's adopted state of New York. In McCain's corner are Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Jon Huntsman of Utah.

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) enjoys the backing of Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Rod Blagojevich of his current home state of Illinois. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has the endorsement of Republican Govs. Matt Blunt of Missouri and Don Carcieri of Rhode Island.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) backs former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). The only sitting governor in the presidential race - Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson - has yet to be politically blessed by any of his gubernatorial colleagues. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) also has not been endorsed by any current governor to date.

A governor's endorsement can bring "a well-oiled party machine and big contributions" to a candidate, pumping energy and momentum into a campaign, Larry Harris, a public opinion expert with Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Washington, D.C, said.

"Gubernatorial endorsements are the ones for any candidate to have," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

[ Stateline.org is tracking governors' endorsements for the 2008 presidential campaign. Click here for a PDF of the current endorsements ].

Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, said the most coveted governors' endorsements are the early primary states - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and now Florida - and large states such as California. An early win in a primary state often can provide momentum for the candidate in other states, he said.

All of the governors in the early primary states have held off weighing in, at least for now, including Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, both Democrats, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, both Republicans. Lynch, for example, will meet with the candidates and welcome them all to the state, but he believes his role is one as "ambassador of the New Hampshire primary," said his spokesman Colin Manning.

Sitting governors of Iowa and New Hampshire, with the country's first caucus and primary, have traditionally stayed out of the campaigns until after their states' voters have spoken. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), for example, refrained from endorsing a Democratic candidate before the 2004 caucus although his wife backed Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

Large states are sought after since they can bring more voters to the polls and carry more electoral votes. California is in a class of its own since Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger brings "tremendous name recognition and star power," said Harris of Mason-Dixon.

Clinton, whose husband, Bill, relied on the support of his fellow governors when he was running for the White House as governor of Arkansas in 1992, has already put governors in key spots. Former Iowa Gov. Vilsack is Clinton's national campaign co-chair and Maryland's O'Malley will represent the senator at the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention in June. Likewise, McCain has tapped Minnesota's Pawlenty as his national co-chairman, who in February addressed the Michigan Republican State Convention on McCain's behalf.

Presidential contenders are courting governors and for a good reason. Just ask President George W. Bush. "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," Bush said in 1999 on his way to winning his first term in office.

Historically, the party that controls the governorships has an advantage in a presidential contest. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, for example, Democrats held most of the governors' seats (28), and when Bush first ran for office in 1999, 31 Republicans were in office, including Bush, then governor of Texas.

As early as the fall of 1999, when McCain and Steve Forbes were running strong against Bush in the GOP polls, 24 Republican governors backed Bush, including Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, who opted not to back McCain from her own state.

Presidents remember who helped them get into the White House, particularly those who backed them at the outset.

Frequently, governors land Cabinet or key political jobs. Then-South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley's (D) early support of Clinton helped land him the job as secretary of the Department of Education. Then-Montana Gov. Marc F. Racicot (R), who was among the first to back Bush in 1999, served later as chairman of the Republican National Committee and was then appointed as the chairman of the president's re-election campaign in 2003.

Bush's Cabinet is brimming with fellow Republican governors who stumped for him in 1999 and early 2000, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who was sworn in as the country's first Office of Homeland Security advisor in 2001 and later in 2003 headed the Department of Homeland Security when it was created.

Also during Bush's first term, the president turned to Wisconsin Gov. Thompson to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dirk Kempthorne, who is now secretary of the Interior Department, and Mike Johanns, currently secretary of Agriculture, were governors of Idaho and Nebraska respectively when they endorsed Bush in 1999.

Michael Leavitt, who is now secretary of Health and Human Services, supported Bush when he was governor of Utah, but his formal endorsement went to his fellow Utahan, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who ran an underdog campaign.

Governors often also make the shortlist for vice president. Among governors reportedly considered for Kerry's running mate for the Democratic 2004 ticket were Iowa's Vilsack, Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, New Mexico's Richardson and Virginia's Mark Warner.