WASHINGTON – For governors thinking about running for the White House (search) in 2008, a formal dinner with President Bush at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. provides a glimpse of what the future could hold.
Even for those who dismiss — at least publicly — such talk.
"Presidential talk is way too speculative and way too early," said Republican Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (search). "Now is the time for policy and progress. Not presidential ambitions."
Presidential pageantry was on display Sunday night in the State Dining Room as Bush and first lady Laura Bush (search) welcomed the governors, who are in town for their annual winter meetings.
Bush, raising a glass of water for a toast, reminded them of the long history of governors rising to the presidency. "Many of our presidents first served as governors. And there's a reason why" — the experience of running a state is "invaluable" preparation, he said.
Speculation already has started about the next White House race, less than four months after the election that narrowly sent Republican Bush to a second term.
"I'd be disingenuous to say, 'Oh, I don't like that kind of talk,"' said Republican Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who awoke Sunday to find the newspaper outside his hotel room door mentioning him among possible 2008 candidates. "But I need to concentrate and focus on finishing my term as governor."
"My attitude is grow where you're planted," he said.
Pennsylvania Democrat Ed Rendell, former head of the Democratic National Committee, said he and many other governors cannot really pursue a White House bid if they want to be re-elected.
"If I went to New Hampshire, it would become an issue in my 2006 election," he said.
Other governors — Rendell singled out Democrats Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Mark Warner of Virginia — already are being closely examined by political donors because they either are term-limited or are so popular at home their re-election is secure.
Some say contenders must start planning now.
"A year-and-a-half from now will be a year too late," said T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a state legislator. "People will be called earlier than they ever have been, people will be signed up earlier than they ever have been."
Governors are always in the mix; four of the last five presidents once led their states — Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Bush of Texas.
More than a dozen governors are quickly mentioned in conversations with political fund-raisers, organizers and consultants, but few will acknowledge the early jockeying.
Romney visited GOP activists this month in South Carolina, an important primary state, and set up a fund-raising operation to distribute money to Republican candidates outside Massachusetts.
Among other names that come to mind when talk turns to 2008 are:
—Republican Jeb Bush of Florida, which handed his brother the White House in 2000. Doubters wonder whether voters would accept a third Bush presidency. Bush, whose terms ends in January 2007, has said he has no intention of running for the White House in 2008.
—Warner, who is from a solidly GOP state. Some say he has yet to build a national reputation.
—Republican George Pataki, who kept his seat in Democratic New York through three terms. He long has been mentioned for a White House bid.
—Richardson, a Hispanic who was U.N. ambassador, energy secretary under Clinton and a former congressman.
Those are just the obvious names.
First-term Democrat Phil Bredesen of Tennessee was featured on the cover of The New Republic as a business-savvy, Southern Democrat. A Wall Street Journal op-ed described the former Nashville mayor as "The Next Bubba," echoing Clinton.
Other Democratic names include Vilsack, a candidate for vice president last year; Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas; and Janet Napolitano of Arizona.
Among Republican names are Bill Owens of Colorado, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stayed in California over the weekend, has star appeal and has joked about becoming president. But he said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he never has seriously considered it. Democrats rave about Jennifer Granholm of Michigan.
Because each is foreign born — Schwarzenegger in Austria, Granholm in Canada — it would take a constitutional amendment before they could run.
Nervous laughter greeted former presidential adviser David Gergen when he opened the governors' four-day conference by saying "somewhere in this room is probably a future American president."
"We won't say who," he said, steering the conversation back to education policy.
Governors were returning to the White House on Monday for policy discussions with Bush and his Cabinet.