WASHINGTON — When the National Governors Association holds its winter meeting here starting on Feb. 26, I expect to see some initial steps in the 2012 presidential campaign. That three-day gathering will offer the first and best opportunity for the enlarged group of 29 Republican governors to caucus and confer among themselves.
The first thing they will discover is their own power. Despite some blown opportunities in Illinois, Colorado, New Hampshire and other states, the Republicans scored major gains, especially in the center of the country. Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa all switched from Democratic to Republican control of the state capitol. This additional leverage makes them a formidable force in the wide-open Republican presidential race.
In the absence of a clear-cut congressional favorite for the nomination, numerous governors and former governors have moved to position themselves to run.
Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, both of whom acquired useful experience and credentials while challenging Sen. John McCain in 2008, will almost certainly be back again. They may likely be joined by Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and now Jon Huntsman of Utah, who is coming home after serving as ambassador to Beijing.
The multiplicity of attractive and credible candidates makes it difficult for the governors to unite behind a single contender early, as they did behind George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, going into the 2000 campaign.
But there is another option — a favorite son strategy — that will preserve and indeed enhance their leverage. Favorite sons are candidates who run only in their home states, where their popularity makes them formidable. The strategy has not been used for years in presidential races, but it is particularly inviting this year. There is reason to believe that Barbour, himself a long-shot possibility for the nomination, will exploit the respect he has gained among his peers as the chairman of the association to put forward the idea.
While Barbour is best positioned to put the favorite son strategy in play — and he has little to lose because several others would have to stumble before he could get a serious consideration — another governor will be more important in determining whether the strategy takes wing.
That is Terry Branstad, once again the governor of Iowa, decades after he finished his first long run in the job. An exceptionally skilled politician, Branstad is generally counted in the Pawlenty camp. His support is the main reason Pawlenty is given a chance in the leadoff caucuses — even against Huckabee, the surprise 2008 winner in Iowa; Romney, who has invested heavily in organizing the state; and perhaps others, including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House.
Branstad’s decision to endorse the favorite son movement and make himself available as the Iowa favorite would be seen inevitably as a blow to Pawlenty. But it could serve Pawlenty well in later states such as New Hampshire, where he could back the favorite son rather than campaign there himself with little prospect of winning.
Were Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who entertains hopes of becoming the nominee as a tea party favorite, to declare himself the favorite son in the often crucial South Carolina primary, he might well foreclose others from running there, and they would all avoid what could be a damaging loss.
Ultimately I cannot tell who of the current aspirants, or such future possibilities as Gen. David Petraeus, might benefit from a successful favorite son movement. But it would preserve the governors’ leverage for the time that they might be united behind a single candidate. And meantime, it would fundamentally alter the dynamics of this intriguing, wide-open race.