By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON — What’s wrong with this picture? While half a dozen current and former Republican governors weigh bids to challenge President Barack Obama, the party’s lightning and thunder are coming from a different handful of governors, who threaten to overshadow those potential candidates.
Republicans drawing the most national attention in recent weeks are first-term Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Many conservatives love them for battling public-sector unions in the name of cutting government spending.
Not far behind is another tier of hard-charging, tough-talking GOP governors who say they are showing the country how to shrink budgets, and vowing to hold Obama accountable in ways traditionally left to Congress. They include Rick Perry of Texas, John Kasich of Ohio and Bob McDonnell of Virginia.
None of these governors shows any interest in running for president next year. Christie and Perry, in particular, routinely knock down the notion. Even if they resist temptation, however, these governors may play important roles in shaping a Republican presidential primary that is slow to take form.
They aren’t just grabbing the headlines and TV coverage that any White House aspirant would crave. They are emphasizing issues, and displaying zeal, that could cause some of the potential presidential contenders to squirm.
Central to most Republican governors’ criticisms of Obama is health care, an issue former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would like to see die down. At a White House meeting Monday, GOP governors unsuccessfully urged the president to seek a quick Supreme Court ruling on his 2010 health care overhaul. And they are complaining publicly about his refusal to grant them more leeway in dealing with Medicaid.
The more they stir opposition to Obama’s program, the more it reminds caucus and primary voters that Romney’s 2006 Massachusetts health care law also required residents to obtain insurance. Potential rivals, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have taken shots at the Massachusetts law.
More broadly, the dynamism and derring-do of the new governors might make the gubernatorial records of possible presidential contenders seem conventional and complacent by comparison. In New Jersey, Christie is parting ways with previous governors of both parties by trying to cut public-sector pensions, which teachers fiercely oppose.
In Wisconsin, Walker is aiming unprecedented whacks at unions’ clout, triggering massive protests but also endearing him to some conservatives.
Will his ambition cause GOP voters to rethink the passion, innovation and cleverness of fellow Midwesterner and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty?
Pawlenty has a record of competence and diligence, but he tries not to be seen as too nice — something no one would ever say of Christie or Walker. “We shouldn’t confuse being nice with being weak,” Pawlenty told The Hill newspaper.
The high-energy activism of first-term Republican governors certainly could raise questions about Sarah Palin’s decision to leave her job as Alaska’s governor before her single term ended.
Other Republicans whose state stewardships will be scrutinized if they run for president include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Former lawmakers such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum will have legislative records to tout and defend if they run for president.
Veteran GOP strategist Rich Galen says the headline-grabbing actions of governors like Walker and Christie pose few immediate problems for potential presidential contenders. But later, Galen said, “if the primary voters begin to doubt there is a level of commitment to change, then they might start looking” at what new governors are doing with their powers, and what the earlier governors did with theirs.
Rather than see a new governor like Christie as a rival, Galen said, presidential hopefuls should “pull over at every rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike and praise him to the high heavens.”
That’s basically Barbour’s approach. He generally has resisted tax hikes in Mississippi, but he oversaw large budget increases in the heady days before the 2008 recession.
“The public understands that we have to control spending,” Barbour said in an interview. “It’s very good and appropriate that these governors are taking the hard steps to actually do what they said they were going to do.”
Perry, the Texan who chairs the Republican Governors Association, suggested that he and his colleagues play perhaps as big a role as Congress and presidential candidates in challenging Obama’s record.
After unveiling a TV ad defending Walker in Wisconsin, Perry told reporters in Washington this week: “From the standpoint of holding this administration accountable, we’re going to run our states and balance our budgets. And we’re going to challenge this administration to look at what we’re doing.”
Thus far, the still-unformed nature of the Republican presidential primary has not drawn Perry or Christie into the mix. But that won’t stop the chatter.
Nor will Christie’s recent comment to National Review. “I already know I could win” a presidential race, he said. “But I’ve got to believe I’m ready to be president, and I don’t.”
Christie’s implication, that he could conquer the GOP field as well as Obama if he tried, will give scant comfort to the half-dozen Republicans hoping their own gubernatorial records will propel them into the White House.