Jewish World Review August 10, 2001 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Governors' Conference drought -- PROVIDENCE, R.I. - How times change in presidential politics. The annual National Governors' Conference used to be a regular showcase for White House hopefuls, but no more. You could have fired a cannon ball into this summer's gathering here and not risked hitting anyone seriously being considered future presidential material.

Time was, the likes of Republicans George Romney (Michigan), Nelson Rockefeller (New York), Bill Scranton (Pennsylvania) and Ronald Reagan (California), and Democrats Jimmy Carter (Georgia), Mike Dukakis (Massachusetts) and Bill Clinton (Arkansas) all seized upon the annual summer conference to grab intense national exposure.

If a governor was not himself a presidential candidate, he would often use the governors' conference to rally support for his favorite. Rockefeller tried and failed to do it for Romney in 1967and Spiro T. Agnew (Maryland) lobbied for Rocky before the New Yorker quit the race on him and drove Agnew into the camp of Richard Nixon.

In those days, however, many governors had their eyes on the White House and rallying them in a bloc for one of their brethren wasn't easy. The present Oval Office occupant, George W. Bush, managed to achieve it in the 2000 presidential election cycle by demonstrating star quality as a vote-getter at a time the Republican gubernatorial ranks were thin in terms of presidential prospects. No other sitting governor was among the 12 vying for the GOP nomination in 2000.

At this summer's conference here, the only governor with anything even approaching national prestige was Democrat Gray Davis of California, and only because he represents the nation's largest state and has been in the news - not entirely favorably - as a result of California's electricity blackouts and his argument with President Bush about what to do about them.

As a personality, Davis is appropriately named - gray and unimposing, though a proven vote-getter and fund-raiser, having already amassed a reported $30 million political war chest for a re-election bid next year. Until his state's power crisis, he was riding high, but when it broke, he took a major hit in the polls for seeming to procrastinate overly long on what to do.

His plea to California consumers to take some simple conservation measures, however, has been surprisingly effective in limiting the rolling blackouts, and so far the Republicans have failed to produce a surefire candidate against him, with former Mayor Richard Riordan of Los Angeles only exploring a candidacy. But Davis hardly strikes the glamorous pose that Reagan did in 1967, fresh from his movie and television career riding a beautiful horse in cowboy garb at a Western governors' conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Yet state houses, along with the vice presidency, are the best stepping stones to the White House of all public offices. In six of the last seven presidential elections, men who have served as governors have been elected, and in the seventh, a governor, Dukakis, was the losing nominee.

The highest profile among this year's Republican governors, Jeb Bush of Florida, brother of the president, didn't attend the conference, occupied as he was with tropical storms threatening the Florida coastlines. In any event, with several Florida Democrats elbowing each other for the opportunity to oppose him in his expected re-election bid next year, thoughts of following Brother George into the White House, as their father might put it, would not be prudent. Rather than entertaining Oval Office dreams, the governors of both parties are focused on their own re-election or that of a party colleague if they themselves face retirement by virtue of term limits. The Republicans, who now hold 29 governorships, will have two of them - in New Jersey and Virginia - up this fall, and 23 others next year. The Democrats, with 19, have only 11 up in 2002 (two states, Maine and Minnesota, have independent governors).

Many of the governors may have Potomac Fever, but if so it did not show sufficiently at this summer's conference to draw the national spotlight for any of them beyond the beleaguered Davis. Nobody, certainly, stood tall in the saddle as Reagan used to do - especially in downtown Providence, R.I.

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