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Top GOP White House prospects Christie, Jindal urge fellow governors to focus first on 2014

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FILE: Nov. 22, 2013: GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talks to Cindy McCain, wife of GOP Sen. John McCain, at a forum in Phoenix, Ariz.AP

Republican Govs. Chris Christie, of New Jersey, and Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, are top Republican presidential prospects. But with the party needing to defend 22 governorships next year, they cautioned members this week against looking too far ahead to the 2016 White House race.

They made their remarks at the annual Republican Governors Association meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Christie told party members, “start thinking about 2016 at our own peril."

No one generated more interest than Christie, the group’s new chairman who arrived in Arizona only two weeks after a sweeping re-election victory in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.

However, the highlight of the event was perhaps a surprise visit from George W. Bush, the last Republican to occupy the White House.

Bashing Washington dysfunction at every turn, the governors offered up their can-do records -- and themselves -- as a model for a party looking to return to power.

As if to emphasize the point, Bush swooped in for a surprise lunch, sharing stories from his time as Texas governor and as president.  

"He encouraged all of us and agrees, I believe, with us that the best breeding ground for presidents is the governors," said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, following a two-hour steakhouse lunch.

Christie will raise money for fellow governors, encourage party activists and court financial donors in 2014.

The political map could be advantageous for Christie. The most competitive governors' races are expected to be in states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, places where any future Republican nominee would need to national help. And any vulnerable governor Christie helps could become a future ally.

However, Democrats suggest they will try to exploit those relationships by attaching Christie, who now appears their most dangerous 2016 opponent, to governors with subpar performances in the interim years.

Jindal preaches a message of substance over personality. Republicans need to define what they're for, Jindal says, not what they're against.

Jindal ended his role as chairman of the organization and, speaking to reporters, stressed the party's need to focus on policy in a tone that suggested he might play the role of policy maven in future GOP presidential primaries.

A former congressman and Bush administration health policy expert, Jindal said the health care law was actually "a design problem" instead of a matter of poor execution. He said Republicans need to put out alternatives, tossing out ideas like allowing people to buy insurance policies across state lines, pooling costs and offering tax credits.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former congressman who served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, had choice words for his former colleagues' handling of spending and health care.

Citing frustration after the government shutdown, he voiced support for an amendment to the Constitution that would require Congress to balance the federal budget.

And in a 2016-tinged twist on health care, Kasich said Obama's overhaul was "really HillaryCare," noting the former first lady's role in reform efforts during the 1990s.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry cut a different figure from the gaffe-prone presidential candidate who flamed out during the 2012 Republican primaries.

Perry now deflects memories of the past with a sense of humor. When Kasich suggested that Republicans need to revamp the way it conducts presidential debates during a panel, Perry drew laughs when he clapped and yelled, "Hell yeah!"

Fellow governors said Perry's economic record is no joke. Several governors pointed to Perry's job creation in Texas as a model, and the governor cited the need to talk to "people's hearts" on issues like immigration.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, wasn't in Arizona. He was promoting his new book, "Unintimidated," about his fight with public-sector unions and victory in a union-backed recall election.

But Walker remains a favorite of Republican donors and is viewed as someone who could win support throughout the party's rival factions.

While Walker couldn't make it to Arizona, he got some face time anyway. Last weekend, Walker took in a Green Bay Packers road game against the New York Giants.

The Associate Press contributed to this story.