Nov 19, 2014 3:30 AM

2016 contest overshadows GOP governors meeting

The Associated Press

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) No fewer than a half-dozen potential presidential candidates are gathering in Florida as the Republican Governors Association prepares to select its next leader.

The organization's annual conference began Wednesday in a luxury oceanside resort where the nation's Republican governors are celebrating their party's recent success in the midterm elections while privately jockeying for position as the 2016 presidential contest looms.

None of the most likely White House candidates is expected to seek to replace the outgoing RGA chief, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as the group's chairman. It's a position with responsibilities that would conflict with the presidential primary season.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he would not run for the RGA chairmanship for just that reason.

"It's pretty obvious at least it's something I should consider," Walker said of a White House bid during an interview with The Associated Press. "And if I'm going to do that, I'm not going to put my colleagues in the position of having someone in place who isn't 100 percent committed to the leadership of the organization."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam acknowledged he has emerged as the favorite to lead the Republican Governors Association through the next year, although the formal vote won't occur until Thursday.

"I told them I'd be willing to do it," Haslam said in a brief interview.

"It's an important organization," he added, explaining his interest in the post. "I am one of those guys who thinks it matters who governs particularly who governs in our states."

The conference comes two weeks after the GOP's midterm rout, in which they gained control of Congress and expanded their majority of governorships across the country. In January the Republican Party will control 31 compared with Democrats' 19. The party's strong performance offers a presidential springboard to governors who won re-election, Walker among them, and others, like Christie, who played a leading role in the GOP's success.

While Hillary Rodham Clinton remains the overwhelming Democratic front-runner should she seek the presidency, the prospective Republican field is crowded and without a clear leader. A handful of Senate Republicans may join the 2016 contest, but many donors and party officials would prefer a presidential nominee to emerge from the ranks of the Republican governors, who have executive experience and are not tainted by Congress' low approval ratings.

Christie arrives in Florida in a strong position after having broadened his national network while raising tens of millions of dollars to help elect Republican governors. Christie and Walker will spend this week alongside a list of other prospective presidential candidates that includes Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Governors, governors-elect, senior aides and prominent donors began to descend on the Boca Raton Resort & Club on Tuesday. The bright pink resort is a sprawling maze of fountains, manicured gardens, ballrooms and high-end restaurants, complete with its own beach club, marina and golf clubhouse.

While much of this week's action takes place behind closed doors, a Wednesday open session titled "Republican Governors: The Road Ahead" features five prospective presidential contenders: Pence, Perry, Jindal, Walker and Kasich.

"Whoever our nominee is, I'm going to be slugging with both fists," said Foster Friess, who was among the many prominent donors mingling with governors on Wednesday.

In one of the gathering's only formal agenda items, Christie will hand over the reins of the RGA on Thursday, ending what has arguably been a politically life-saving tenure as the group's chairman. Beyond boosting his 2016 prospects, he has used the position to help repair his reputation after the political retribution traffic scandal in New Jersey that badly tainted his brand earlier in the year.

But the role has also cost him at home. An AP analysis of his public schedule shows that Christie will have spent about 40 percent of his second term out of state by the time he finishes up in Florida on Friday. At the same time, his popularity has slumped at home, according to a number of local polls, with increasingly vocal critics charging that he's neglected local issues.

None of the Republican governors considering the presidency is particularly popular at home, however, according to interviews with voters after this month's midterm elections. Just a quarter of Louisiana voters said Jindal would make a good president, while one-third of Texas voters said the same of Perry. For Walker, who just won his third gubernatorial election in four years, just over 4 in 10 of Wisconsin voters said he is presidential material.


Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.


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