They may be the most prominent political leaders in their states, but the majority of Democratic governors have refrained so far from backing a candidate to challenge President Bush.

Just seven of the 22 Democratic governors have stepped forward with an endorsement weeks into the presidential primary season. John Kerry (search) is starting to win over some, but the Democratic picture still contrasts sharply with the Republicans in 2000 — who had flocked to then-Texas Gov. Bush months before the first vote was cast.

Democratic governors say that they don't want to tell party voters what to think. Or they want "the process" to toughen the candidates. Or they've got enough problems at home to worry about. Or all of the above.

"I'm not endorsing anyone," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (search), whose state holds its primary Tuesday. "I'll just go into the voting booth and vote."

All five Democratic governors whose voters made their choices earlier this week stayed mum on the candidates left in the race — Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Brad Henry of Oklahoma and Bob Holden of Missouri (he didn't back anyone after favorite son Dick Gephardt, who he'd earlier endorsed, dropped out).

Kerry won in all those states except Oklahoma, and also picked up North Dakota.

On Thursday, Maine Gov. John Baldacci came forward for Kerry — three days before Sunday's caucuses. Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Gary Locke of Washington also have endorsed Kerry in the past week: their voters go to the polls Saturday.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she's deciding between Kerry and John Edwards. "There will be a coalescing and I think it will be very soon," said Granholm, who said she has been speaking with other governors but wouldn't say who.

"People want to choose well. And they also want to see how the campaign tests a candidate's mettle," she said. "It's very Darwinistic."

In the next two weeks, six states with Democratic governors hold primaries. In half of them — Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin — governors have kept their own counsel.

"I would be very happy with any one of the leading candidates," said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. "I will probably not endorse before the primary."

Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor who has staked his campaign's future on Wisconsin, only got one fellow governor's support so far — James McGreevey of New Jersey. Edwards won the backing of his home-state governor, Mike Easley of North Carolina. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack waited until his state's caucuses were over to endorse Kerry, the winner.

Some political observers, governors among them, don't think such endorsements do much good — particularly for Democrats.

"Democrat electorates don't take kindly to direction from the top," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Republicans almost always nominate the person next in line. Democrats resist that. ... Democrat voters say 'Thank you very much, and I'll make up my own mind."'

Look at the impact, or lack thereof, of the high-profile endorsements for Dean from Al Gore and Bill Bradley. He went on to lose Iowa, New Hampshire and every other state so far.

Dean's leadership roles, chairing the National Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association, haven't helped him snare endorsements.

"He's a governor with whom most current governors did not serve," explained Napolitano. Fourteen of the current 22 Democratic governors began their terms in 2003 or 2004, after Dean had already left office.

Bush, by contrast, was a sitting governor who worked with many of his GOP colleagues. By August 1999, he had endorsements from 21 of the then-31 Republican governors.

Vilsack, who nominally leads Democratic governors as current chairman of the DGA, said that besides speaking "very briefly" with a few colleagues, he hasn't made a concerted effort to build support for Kerry.

And he's not planning a big campaign. Democrats aren't like Republicans, he said. "I don't think we do the party or the candidate any good by coalescing around a single candidate and coronating. That's not the Democratic way," he said.

Other factors, too, are muting the governors' political voice.

Some are too new to their jobs, so they're focused on budgets and health care, while others face re-elections and don't want to risk angering Democrats at home by choosing one candidate over another, he and other governors said.

Still, the candidates and their campaigns have been pressing governors, hoping to nail down endorsements.

"Lord, yes. I've had multiple conversations with virtually everyone," Bredesen said. But he's not made any commitments, and won't. He'll let the voters decide — then back the Democratic nominee.