The nation's governors head this week to Iowa - a key state in the presidential selection process - where they plan to consider education and health-care reform proposals and, in some cases, possibly a 2008 White House bid.
This year's summer meeting of the National Governors Association will be held July 15-18 in Des Moines, Iowa, in the heart of the state whose caucuses serve as the opening bell of the presidential campaign season.
As of July 12, between 30 and 35 governors were registered for the meeting, the focus of which will be examining options to redesign the American high school - an initiative that Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) pursued during his year as NGA chairman.
Although the staunchly bipartisan NGA takes great pains to insulate itself from partisan politics, the meeting's location undoubtedly could provide governors who aspire to national office an opportunity to forge relationships with party activists in the Hawkeye State and to test their message with pivotal audiences of potential voters.
Both the NGA's outgoing chairman, Warner, and its incoming leader, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) have been mentioned as potential candidates for their respective party's nomination in the 2008 presidential race.
At a July 6 luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Warner prompted questions from journalists about his political ambitions when he sharply criticized President Bush for failing to galvanize the country behind a cause such as improving education or advancing technology in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Warner, who is limited to a single term, has not said whether he will seek the presidency when he leaves office in January.
But during a recent trip to Iowa, Warner, who recently formed a federal political action committee, co-hosted a televised forum on high school reform and in an interview with The Associated Press criticized U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D) for failing to appeal to moderate Democrats.
"I've got six months left on this job ... If I'm going to do anything else in Virginia or anything else in politics ... I want to make sure I finish out strong," Warner said.
For his part, Huckabee, who takes over as NGA chairman this week, in late June was ranked as the top Republican candidate for president by a conservative online publication, http://www.redstate.org/ . When asked by reporters whether he is considering a possible White House bid, Huckabee also has emphasized his immediate duties as governor and NGA chairman.
But Warner and Huckabee aren't the only governors that plan to attend the meeting who've been mentioned as possible presidential contenders. Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association , in 2004 was reportedly on Kerry's short list of vice presidential candidates. Along with Warner and Huckabee, Vilsack will take center stage this week as the meeting's host governor.
On the Republican side, New York Gov. George Pataki - who rarely attends NGA meetings - will travel to Iowa this week. The official reason for Pataki's trip is to honor two New York state residents receiving awards from the NGA. Political pundits long have speculated Pataki might be interested in a presidential run.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), North Carolina Gov. Michael Easley (D), Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell (D) and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) are among the other governors who have been mentioned as possible presidential contenders that are slated make the trip to Iowa.
Others governors who have been named as possible presidential hopefuls - most notably Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) - are not expected to attend the meeting.
"It's probably not as frenzied as it would be if this was a year from now in Iowa," Warner said.
NGA spokeswoman Jodi Omaer said the decision to meet in Iowa was not a political one.
"NGA is a bipartisan forum of the governors. The politics don't play into our business agenda" Omaer said.
The July 16 opening plenary session will focus on reforms that could ensure the high school experience reflects the realities and expectations of higher education and the global marketplace. Speakers from China and India will join Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, in providing an international perspective on the challenges facing today's students.
Huckabee also is expected to release details of the topic he will focus on as NGA chairman. He told Stateline.org that he plans to explore methods by which government, employers and the health care industry can encourage citizens to adopt healthier lifestyles. Huckabee, 49, recently embraced a health regimen that he credits with helping him lose more than 100 pounds. He has written a book titled "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," chronicling his weight-loss efforts.
Governors also are expected to give formal approval to a package of proposals to fundamentally overhaul Medicaid, the state-federal health care program that serves 53 million poor and disabled Americans. Governors have vehemently opposed Congress' plan to cut $10 billion from the program over five years. In June, Warner and Huckabee presented to Congress governors' Medicaid proposals, which aim to make the program sustainable over the long-term, in part by giving states more flexibility to determine which benefits to offer and how much to charge for services.
In one of several closed-door sessions, governors will meet with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, the panel charged with making the prescribed Medicaid cuts.
Governors also will hold private meetings with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson.