MILWAUKEE — Health care, budgets and education topped the official agenda for governors at their annual summer summit. But the 2016 presidential race was never far from view or conversation, given the clear White House interest from some in the crowd gathered near Lake Michigan.
With President Barack Obama in his second and final term, the fields for both parties are wide open for the 2016 nominations. There are two years to go before primary campaigning begins in earnest, but prospective candidates are already putting out feelers to determine the support they might draw.
Some of the governors thought to have potential presidential ambitions were a study in contrasts at the Milwaukee meeting.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was perhaps the most conspicuous, playing the role of proud host and welcoming his counterparts from around the country to the area where he once served as county executive.
He schmoozed with governors and their families while taking batting practice at Miller Park, home field for Milwaukee’s major league baseball team, the Brewers. He sat for private interviews with local and national media and was pressed by dozens of reporters on Friday, the conference’s opening day.
Most conspicuously, Walker sported a signature black and orange Harley-Davidson jacket and rumbled through downtown Milwaukee on his own 2003 motorcycle, leading a procession of 100 riders celebrating the 110th anniversary of Wisconsin’s iconic motorcycle. He stopped at times for pictures with veterans who joined the rolling thunder.
“It draws more attention to what I’m trying to do in Wisconsin,” Walker said in an interview. “You’re in the news not for the sake of being in the news. It’s for a purpose.”
Walker has already developed a national reputation because of legislation he signed in 2011 stripping public employee unions of bargaining power and decisively winning the recall it prompted last year.
Like Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also has a national following. His outspoken style, background as a federal prosecutor and image as a Republican who has confronted powerful forces in his Democratic-dominant state have made him a fan favorite.
But Christie could hardly have been less conspicuous in Milwaukee. He was accompanied by few staff, mainly security. Most noteworthy, Christie, who is usually accessible to news media, granted no interview requests.
Approached in a corridor, Christie breezed by, saying “He’s not taking questions.”
For Christie, the calculation is different than for others with possible presidential ambitions who attended the conference, including Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Democrats Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Martin O’Malley of Maryland. Unlike the others, Christie faces re-election this fall, and keeping his public profile focused on returning to office is a priority. Whatever prospects he may have for the presidential nomination would effectively vanish if he lost re-election.
Like Christie, Jindal kept a low profile. But he made strategic use of his time.
Jindal met with reporters Sunday morning shortly after pulling off the behind-the-scenes coup of the weekend. He had attended a fundraiser in Iowa at the invitation of Gov. Terry Branstad and flew with Branstad to Milwaukee, giving the two an hour of quality chat time. Because of Iowa’s early presidential caucuses, Branstad’s insight into the state’s politics is valued. He also carved out time for Walker and Christie.
“I like all these governors,” said Branstad, a veteran Republican. “I want to be a good friend and a good host. And I’ll give them my best and honest advice.”
Hickenlooper and O’Malley were as different as Christie and Walker. Hickenlooper was content to keep a lower profile, while O’Malley literally seized the spotlight.
At a Democratic Governors Association reception Saturday evening, O’Malley, who plays guitar and sings Irish folk tunes, sat in with the band on stage for several numbers.
News reporters sought out Hickenlooper to discuss his government’s response to last year’s shootings in a suburban Denver movie theater packed for a midnight screening. Twelve people died in the massacre, including a 6-year-old girl, and 70 were wounded.
Hickenlooper signed legislation this year requiring background checks for all gun sales and stepped-up mental health programs. “We also saw a point of keeping guns out of the hands on dangerous criminals,” Hickenlooper said.
But among the Democrats, O’Malley took pains to discuss his views on the state of the country, the only one of the governors to offer insight into a prospective campaign.
“We’re going through a time of confusion and polarization and a real crisis about whether or not we are capable as a people of accomplishing big and important things,” he told reporters Saturday.
And in doing so, O’Malley signaled candidly he is preparing to run.
“By the end of this year, we’re on course to have a body of work that lays the framework of the candidacy for 2016,” he said.
Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Rick Perry, R-Texas, are also viewed as possible contenders for their party’s nomination in 2016. Neither attended the conference.