NEW YORK – The crowd on the Republican convention floor couldn't be more aware of how close the race for president is, from reminders at breakfast to speeches that run until nearly midnight. But few feel the pressure more than governors of states where the contest could go either way.
For the seven GOP governors among the so-called battleground states, this election is a handshaking, speechmaking marathon and an acid test of their political future.
"I'm doing everything I can to keep our party united behind our president," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (search), whose state went for Bush by just 5 percentage points in 2000, and where the latest polls showed only a slight lead for the GOP.
"I don't feel so much the pressure for me personally. I feel the pressure of the country," said Huckabee, whose final term ends in two years and whose name has been floated as a potential presidential candidate. "I feel more a sense of urgency and burden for our nation."
Most battlegrounds are in Democratic hands. The seven states with GOP governors besides Arkansas are Colorado (Bill Owens), Florida (Jeb Bush), Ohio (Bob Taft), Minnesota (Tim Pawlenty), Nevada (Kenny Guinn) and New Hampshire (Craig Benson).
"It's a lot of pressure," said Benson. "I promised the president he would do better than he did last time." Bush won New Hampshire and its four electoral votes by 7,211 votes in 2000.
There's another upside to helping deliver a victory as talk bubbles about the 2008 presidential race. Besides Huckabee, governors mentioned are Mitt Romney (search) of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York, Jeb Bush, Owens and Pawlenty, along with a handful of senators.
Governors say they're working hand-in-glove with the Bush-Cheney campaign, lending campaign staff, allies and as much time as they can spare.
Taft described riding buses across Ohio with Bush's senior adviser Karl Rove (search); Huckabee has made speaking tours in Arkansas, and to evangelical groups and social conservatives in Iowa, West Virginia and Florida; Benson talked of door-knocking and mailings.
"We've had the Taft campaign merge into the Bush campaign and back into the Taft campaign," said Brian K. Hicks, former chief of staff for Ohio's two-term governor and now a consultant for the state's Bush-Cheney campaign. "It's really synergistic."
But not all those who are knocking on doors at home see much help from their governor.
"All my contacts have been with the Bush-Cheney campaign, and not from the governor," said Mary Trausch, an Ohio delegate. Her fellow delegate, Robert Winzeler, sums it up: "Taft has not done well, he's become a disappointment."
The two described a campaign of interlocking layers of strategists and volunteers, focused on the precinct level, with each precinct captain required to identify five people to work with them, and each of the five to get an additional duo to help carry out orders.
"It's the most intense grass-roots effort I've seen ever, and I've been involved for 40 years," Winzeler said.
Governors can help in very close states on turnout, but only if they've got good organizations, said Merle Black, an expert on presidential races at Emory University in Atlanta.
But the payoff, if their state does prove critical, can be substantial, he said. "There are some IOUs. Winning big in a state, or helping the effort in other states — that would give more prominence." Still, the speculation about 2008 can be very short-lived, he said.
"There are a lot of them who hear the trumpets, the music, and no one else is hearing it," Black said. "That's just the nature of political ambition."
Pawlenty dismissed the notion that a governor can "deliver" a state, though he said he's doing all he can now and will devote even more effort as the race gets closer. What matters is the president.
"We're the lead cheerleaders," Pawlenty said. "We symbolically go out to speak to groups and events, to engage and motivate the grass-roots volunteers. We help raise money. We give some advice — but not really. It's really run by them. They do all the tactical stuff."
At the convention, all the elements come together.
The Ohio delegation began one breakfast with their governor. "We are the Florida of 2004," Taft boomed. "The president is putting his heart and soul into carrying our state. And that's what we need to do."
Then Rove and Bush's national campaign manager Ken Mehlman spoke to the packed room, talking numbers of volunteers, numbers of days left to register voters, numbers of days until early voting starts.
"We've got to stretch every nerve. We've got to use every muscle," Rove said. "You are, like it or not, ground zero."
"I just consider it my responsibility to do everything I can to deliver Colorado, to help convince Colorado to turn out for President Bush," said Owens in Colorado, where polls show a tight race. "I really consider this to be my job."