ORLANDO, Fla. -- To the dismay of many Republicans, you won't find a presidential candidate anywhere at this year's Republican Governors Association meeting, a conference crawling with conservative mega-stars.
Several Republican governors, most notably New Jersey's Chris Christie, Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, declined calls from leading voices on the right to join the Republican presidential race this year. And now that the field is set, many of the same state executives who could play an important primary role by making an endorsement are still refraining to take part.
Even though the Iowa caucus looms just four weeks away, most of the discussion at the conference about the primary season was reduced--at least publicly--to generalities about beating President Obama, as opposed to specifics about who's the best candidate.There have not been many high-profile nods coming from governor's mansions this cycle--apart from Christie, who endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"We're all on the sideline because we're all disappointed that Christie isn't running," cracked Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the RGA, during a press availability on Wednesday.
He was joking, of course. But there was an obvious kernel of truth in the aside. McDonnell, who said in an interview with Yahoo News that he may not endorse in the primaries at all because of his role as RGA chairman, has made it clear that he wants a governor to move into the White House on January 20, 2013. If it's a choice between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Romney--as recent polls suggest it could be--it's a safe bet that McDonnell could throw his support behind the latter, a possibility he hinted at several times this week.
"I'm neutral at this point," McDonnell told Yahoo News. "What I have clearly said is that our best nominee would be a current or former governor. So that does kind of limit the field."
Many of the governors are following McDonnell's lead and staying quiet about the primaries. Barbour and Daniels have both indicated that they won't endorse a candidate before Republican voters choose their nominee next year. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on the other hand, said she will "absolutely" back a candidate before the Iowa caucus, but she has not yet given any indication as to who that will be.
All that radio silence from the other governors offered Christie a fine opportunity to blow his trumpet for Romney. And he took full advantage of it.
"There is a steady, consistent enthusiasm for Mitt Romney. And the other folks seem to be riding a roller coaster and they don't know where it's going to land," Christie told a reporter who asked why Romney couldn't muster more than 25 percent in national polls.
Over the course of the campaign, three candidates other than Romney have found themselves leading in national polls, and all of them--Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Perry and businessman Herman Cain--fell back to the bottom as quickly as they rose to the top, a sure sign of angst among the Republican electorate.
Now that Gingrich is leading, the question is whether he'll face the same fate. Christie certainly thinks so.
"Past is prologue, right?" Christie replied when a reporter asked whether he thought Gingrich's surge will last. "Every person who has come up and either come near Governor Romney or risen above him turns out to then have fallen back down. And I think that's because the voters come to the conclusion over and over again that those individuals have not been up to the standard that governor Romney has set as the front runner in this race."
"Will that happen with Speaker Gingrich?" he went on to say. "I don't know, we're going to have to see. But I still think governor Romney's going to win the nomination. So from that perspective, I guess I am predicting that."
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