WASHINGTON – Despite the rising tensions and rhetoric of a presidential race, the nation's governors are looking to President Bush and his administration for more support on education, health care and job-producing road spending.
Bush was to sit down Monday with governors, along with his Cabinet officials, for a wide-ranging discussion on the most pressing issues facing the states.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the National Governors Association (search), at their annual four-day annual meeting here, urged consensus. But others said that was unlikely.
"I don't think you can count on the national governors as being an effective lobbying force. It's an election year," said Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (search). "I suspect the meeting with the president will be a little contentious. Respectful, but contentious."
Bush welcomed the governors and their spouses to a formal dinner at the White House Sunday night, sitting himself at a table with California GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) and others. He thanked the governors for their efforts on homeland security.
"We're still at war," Bush said. "The war on terror is a new kind of war in which every American is threatened and every level of government must work together."
Earlier in the day, governors met privately with the top National Guard general and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to express their concerns about the increasing demands on Guard units in the fight against terrorism.
"It's not that we're not supportive of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq," said Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. "We have to kind of step back and rethink the whole picture." Like other governors, he said part-time soldiery has seen a transformation in recent years.
Guard and Reserve soldiers make up about 22 percent of the forces in Iraq. That level is expected to rise to nearly 40 percent as a result of force rotations in the coming months.
The military demands in Iraq and Afghanistan give governors, who technically are commanders in chief of their state units, a heightened interest in the development of U.S. foreign policy. The reliance on the part-time soldiers will have a ripple effect, governors said.
"We've got a real retention issue," said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a member of the Air Force Reserve.
"You're going to see just an emptying, when people's tickets are up, ... of Guardsmen not stepping up to the plate," he said.
State rely on their Air and Army Guard units to help in emergencies such as hurricanes, earthquakes or riots. In the past two years, their roles have expanded even more as they assist in homeland security patrols.
The part-time soldiers are brought under federal control for missions such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are roughly 500,000 members of the Guard. With the reserves, there are over 1 million civilian soldiers.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, which oversees all reserve forces, said his goal was to change the Guard so governors could have a predictable number of troops to rely on.
According to a document obtained by The Associated Press, Blum told governors that the goal was to manage deployment so half of each state's units would remain at home and be available for state needs; one-quarter would be deployed for federal needs; and one-quarter would be going through intensive training for deployment.
Some states now have 40 percent or more of their Guard troops overseas.
"Governors are uniquely challenged right now," Blum said, speaking before the meeting began. "The Guard itself is really transforming, at lightning speed, from an old Cold War, strategic reserve based on deterrence - only to be called up in event of global war - and we moved from that to an operational reserve."
The extended deployments overseas take their toll on families, on local businesses and on state economies, governors said.
Huckabee, who has seen more than 40 percent of Arkansas' Guard deployed, said: "It's like having a sudden job reduction of over 4,300 people. These are people we need, people we can't do without."
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said he was encouraged by the general's presentation, but said the demands on the Guard are a result of Bush's mistakes.
"This whole situation is a reflection of the Bush administration's miscalculations of what it was going to take to provide security and stability in Iraq," said Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.