Neutral Governors to Remain on Sidelines

By: - May 9, 2008 12:00 am

In the homestretch of an unprecedented presidential primary season, spinning with competing sound-bites and endless rhetoric, voters still heading to the polls in four states can’t look to their governors for any pre-election advice. These governors plan to wait until after their states vote to make their own endorsements.

Democratic governors in three of the five states yet to have their primaries are staying out of the fray and letting their voters decide on their own whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton should be the party’s nominee for the White House.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer all plan to refrain from making any presidential endorsement until after their states’ primaries, which run from May 13 un til June 3 , the last day of the nominating calendar, the governors’ offices told .

All but one Republican governor – Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter – have lined up behind John McCain, the party’s presumed nominee. The Idaho governor says he intends to endorse the Republican nominee after Idahoans vote in his state’s May 27 Republican presidential primary.

The nation’s Democratic governors are as divided as the party over who should be their nominee. In addition to Manchin, Beshear and Schweitzer, three other Democratic governors don’t plan to endorse until later in the selection process for various reasons, but the 22 who have are evenly split between Obama and Clinton, with 11 each.

Backing Obama are the governors of Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. For Clinton are the governors of Arkansas, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

Of the six Democratic governors who are uncommitted, Manchin of West Virginia and Schweitzer of Montana will be on the primary ballot themselves, seeking re-election. They are both expected to easily best their Democratic rivals in the May 13 and June 3 respective primaries.

Voters in Nebraska also will go to the polls May 13, and while Obama and Clinton are on the ballot, Democrats there determined their delegates during their Feb. 9 caucus, in which Obama won.

Democrats have stayed on the fence for various reasons. Manchin has stayed neutral because of his role as head of the Democratic Governors Association while Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said from the beginning he would not stump for a candidate because he is the governor of the host state of the Democratic convention in Denver. New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch said he wanted to be an ambassador for the state for all the candidates, Republican and Democrat, who ventured there Jan. 8 during the first-in-the-nation primary.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has cited his role as one of the Democratic Party’s “super-delegates” who could cast tie-breaking votes in selecting the party’s nominee, as one of the key reasons for refusing to pick sides. Bredesen maintains that it would be best to remain neutral if neither Obama nor Clinton wins the 2,025 delegates from state primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination outright, leaving the choice to the more than 700 “super-delegates.”

Governors’ endorsements can be important in rallying state voters, but as results this primary season show, they don’t always translate into wins for a presidential candidate.

Clinton , for example, failed to win a majority of primary voters in Delaware, Maine, Maryland and North Carolina, despite the support of the governors there, but the strong backing of governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania appeared to help Clinton secure victories there.

Obama lost in Arizona and Massachusetts, despite their governors’ support, but appeared to be boosted in Virginia and Kansas with the top state executives there stumping for him.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only sitting governor who also ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, was heavily courted by both campaigns before he announced his support for Obama, which provoked an unusual sharp criticism from Clinton allies. James Carville likened the endorsement to an “act of betrayal” comparable to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Richardson, who dropped out of the race Jan. 10 after fourth-place finishes in both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, had served as energy secretary and United Nations ambassador for President Bill Clinton.

On the Republican side, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist – Republican governors from three of the country’s largest states – threw their support behind McCain in the weeks leading up to Super-duper Tuesday on Feb. 5, helping to give McCain an edge over his GOP challengers.

Five Republican governors originally backed other candidates, but have since switched their support to McCain.

Before dropping out of the race in February, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won the backing of three governors: Republican Govs. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, Don Carcieri of Rhode Island and Matt Blunt of Missouri, who Jan. 22 announced he was not running for re-election this year.

And South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds initially endorsed f ormer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee while Texas Gov. Rick Perry had supported Rudy Giuliani before the former New York City mayor bowed out.

Governors who support the right candidate early may have an edge for plum spots in a new president’s administration. President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, for example, brimmed with fellow Republican governors who stumped for him in 1999 and early 2000, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, sworn in as the country’s first head of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Also during Bush’s first term, the president turned to Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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