For governors with national ambitions, this is pad -- and promote -- your record time.
Republicans Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is trying to ditch his state's income tax while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is working to shift people off his state's Medicaid rolls and onto private insurance. They are among the Republicans trying to claim an outside-the-Beltway mantle in a GOP lacking a single standard bearer.
Their Democratic counterparts, like Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York, are putting themselves at the vanguard of Democratic wish lists -- from gay marriage and gun control to manufacturing jobs and capital punishment -- as they seek to be seen as a voice on issues paramount to a diverse coalition of minorities, women and young people that twice elected President Barack Obama.
These are the sort of politics that will be the subtext during the annual National Governors Association meeting in Washington, where governors are gathering amid another standoff between the White House and congressional Republicans over deep spending cuts. The timing gives governors, especially those jockeying to be seen as leaders of their respective parties, the chance to point to their stewardship of tight state budgets and policy agendas as Washington is mired in gridlock.
Several governors face re-election in 2014 -- Republican Chris Christie goes before New Jersey voters later this year -- and the races will become part of the so-called "invisible primary" for those looking to build a national following among party activists and financial donors for their upcoming campaigns, if not for a future presidential one someday. Those with aspirations beyond their states are mindful that a leadership vacuum exists in the GOP and that one is on the horizon in the Democratic Party, too, given that Obama is in his second term.
"Any way you slice it, governors writ large, and Republican governors in particular, are spearheading robust policy agendas that are making real change to the bottom line of their states," said Phil Musser, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
Republicans hold a majority of governor's mansions and view the states as models of conservative governing. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has made transportation funding reform a key piece of his legislative agenda as he seeks to grapple with growing road-and-bridge costs. Ohio's economy has rebounded during Gov. John Kasich's term, and he has promoted plans to overhaul the state's tax code and school funding system.
Jindal, in his second term at age 41, has built up a record of ethics reforms, cuts to business taxes and his state's response to the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has proposed eliminating the state income tax -- a move cheered on by conservatives -- by raising sales taxes and possibly boosting tobacco taxes and broadening the list of services taxed by the state. An Indian-American, the governor also has been pitching ways for the GOP to reach out to minorities and working-class voters. And he regularly urges his former colleagues in Congress -- he was a House member -- to move beyond a debate over who can better manage the federal government.
Christie is seeking re-election in Democratic-tilting New Jersey. Blunt and straight-talking, he has seen his approval ratings soar since Superstorm Sandy and has been working to broaden his appeal with an anti-Washington message while vowing to avoid the "old ways of wasteful spending and rising taxes."
Democrats hope this year's campaign in New Jersey will expose what they contend is a weak record on the economy -- the state's unemployment rate was 9.6 percent in December, well above the national average -- and ratchet up support for state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's likely opponent.
In Wisconsin, Walker, who survived a union-led campaign to recall him from office, has proposed changes to the state's Medicaid plan in the aftermath of Obama's health care law. Instead of simply expanding Medicaid, a move opposed by conservatives, Walker wants to lower his state's income-eligibility rate and make other changes that he says will reduce the number of people on Medicaid but still cut the number of uninsured. State Democrats are wary of the plan.
Walker brushed off talk of presidential politics on Friday but made clear that a higher profile has allowed him to promote not only his state but the policies he cares about. "Do I want to run? I want to be governor," Walker said in an interview. "I had to work hard twice in the last two years to be governor of Wisconsin. I got even more votes the second time. For a lot of people who worked hard for me to be governor, I need to be focused on that."
Among Democrats, at least two governors who appear to have aspirations beyond their states -- Cuomo and O'Malley -- are pushing progressive agendas that pull the heartstrings of the party faithful even as many activists wait to see whether former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden will try to succeed Obama.
Cuomo has sky-high approval ratings and a long list of accomplishments that include pushing same-sex marriage and enacting the first gun control measure in the nation following the Connecticut school massacre.
He regularly promotes his state's strong record on education and pushes for gay marriage and gun control. O'Malley has most recently pushed for Maryland to abolish the death penalty.
"It's a long ways off and I'm focused on governing well," O'Malley said of presidential talk during an interview. "Some of the best advice that I've ever received is that doing the job that you have and doing it well is the most important thing."