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Planting presidential seeds in Iowa

Hopeful governors farm the caucus state

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit


DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- They roll their eyes at the questions, which one called "dramatically premature." They're amused by media interest in the 2008 presidential race, and they scoff at claims that they're privately plotting their own runs for the White House.

But listen to some high-profile governors at their National Governors Association meeting this weekend in the crucial election state of Iowa and it's clear presidential politics aren't far from their minds.

"All this stuff about '08 is dramatically premature," said Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York. "We're focused first on being governors and second, if there is a political element, on the '06 elections, specifically the one in Iowa.

"In a sense, it's like being a football coach," Pataki said. "Sure, you're thinking about recruits three seasons from now. But you're focused now on winning the game this fall."

In addition to Pataki, other governors at the conference have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates, including Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack.

"It's not always freezing cold in the state," Vilsack joked at a sweltering rooftop news conference Saturday.

Presidential hopefuls most often visit the Hawkeye State in the winter, before Iowa caucusers cast the nation's first ballots of the presidential primary season.

'They have to listen'

Also attending Saturday's news conference was possible GOP presidential hopeful, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who dubbed the event "Tom's Tanning Parlor."

Huckabee, the incoming NGA chairman, said campaigning for Republicans during the past three presidential elections has taught him to appreciate the primaries and caucuses.

"It's very refreshing that, in order for a person to seek the highest job in the land, they have to listen to people out in middle America," said Huckabee. "Candidates are forced to go out to small groups of people, actually go out to people's homes to a farm in rural Iowa and sit down. Instead of making a speech, they have to listen. It's more about what they hear than what they say."

An unusually large turnout of more than 30 governors made the trek to the NGA's 97th summer meeting -- the first ever held in Iowa.

Officially, their broad-ranging agenda focuses on national security, high schools, health care, the environment, Internet broadband services, teacher recruitment and transportation.

Warner's words

Outgoing NGA chairman and possible presidential hopeful -- Virginia Gov. Mark Warner -- met privately Saturday with what an aide described as a "state Democratic official" and spoke at a Democratic luncheon on Friday.

He urged Democrats to focus on the South. "The Democratic Party can't just compete in 16 or 17 states and cede the rest of the country," Warner said. "A candidate sure as hell has to compete in every region."

"As the Republican Party moves further to the right and social conservatives are demanding results, that leaves independents and moderate Republicans looking for an alternative," Warner said.

'Things we should be doing to prepare'

Pataki started Saturday with a visit to a farmers' market. He then met privately with state GOP activists. He also joined other Republican governors for a party luncheon that raised $100,000. And later that night Pataki went to a Little League baseball game.

Pataki also met with Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen. One aide to the governor said, "It was more us picking his brain. Asking, what are the things we should be doing to prepare."

He gave every appearance Saturday of someone trying to generate buzz. With TV cameras and boom mics in tow, Pataki breezed through the convention center with a small entourage of aides and supporters, stopping briefly to chat in Spanish with Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.

Pataki has not said whether he'll seek a fourth term as governor in '06, when he would likely face a tough race against his state's Democratic attorney general, Eliot Spitzer.

One new sign that Pataki might not run for re-election: Campaign finance reports filed Friday showed that his re-election committee has raised less money during the past year than in any year since 1999.

Another GOP governor, Massachusetts' Mitt Romney, is preparing more aggressively for an '08 bid than any other sitting governor.

"But he hasn't been doing county fairs or house parties like some of the other governors," said Romney spokeswoman Julie Teer. "And ... he's not holding big dinners for reporters."

Instead, Romney spent Friday at a roundtable discussion of six GOP governors, followed by a fund-raiser for the Iowa GOP. Later, he met with Republican leaders of the state legislature and had dinner with former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a former client of Mike Murphy, Romney's chief political adviser.

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