Traverse City, Mich. — Eight months ago, Mitt Romney and Bill Richardson squared off as heads of the Republican and Democratic governors associations, the rival campaign arms of the two parties in the midterm election fight over 36 governorships.
Today, Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, are running for the presidential nominations of their respective parties. But the governors they helped elect are nowhere to be found.
When virtually all the nation's governors gathered here last weekend for the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, the silence from them about the coming presidential election spoke volumes.
Romney has been endorsed by only two sitting governors, Matt Blunt of Missouri and Don Carcieri of Rhode Island. And Richardson has yet to sign up a single one of his Democratic colleagues as a supporter.
The governors of both parties are hanging back from making endorsements this cycle. Fewer than one-quarter of the 50 governors have come out of hiding, and even they are pretty quiet about their preferences.
This is a stunning contrast to the situation eight years ago - a year in advance of the 2000 election. Vice President Al Gore had collected a bunch of endorsements from Democrats even before Bill Bradley turned up as his challenger. And 24 Republican governors had pledged their support to Texas' George W. Bush in a power play that provided the opening momentum for his candidacy.
This year, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democrat, has garnered only three endorsements - from home-state New York's Eliot Spitzer and from Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Martin O'Malley of Maryland. Her main rival, Barack Obama, has the support of home-state Illinois' Rod Blagojevich and Virginia's Tim Kaine.
On the Republican side, in addition to Romney's pair, John McCain has signed up Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Jon Huntsman of Utah. South Dakota's Mike Rounds is helping former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
And that's it. Most of the big-state governors are holding back, so the smaller players are also being coy. Georgia Republican Sonny Perdue says the key members of his political team have scattered among the various contenders, turning up in every camp or waiting for Fred Thompson to announce, so he is staying neutral.
Others have different excuses. John Lynch, a Democrat, says he is concerned with protecting the primacy of his New Hampshire primary, so he wants to assure everyone a fair shake by staying neutral. Bill Ritter, the freshman Democrat in Colorado, says he will be host to the Democratic National Convention so he does not want to offend. But he rejects the notion that Richardson has some claim on Colorado's support either because he comes from a neighboring Mountain West state or is a Hispanic with ties to that important Colorado constituency.
Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, a Democrat, says she wants more commitments on trade and industrial policy before she makes up her mind. Trade issues also loom large for uncommitted Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Chet Culver of Iowa, a Democrat, says the voters in the first caucus can decide for themselves without help from him. John Baldacci of Maine, also a Democrat, says he likes Clinton but adds, "As a member of the House, I voted against this war, and I'm still processing how I feel about that issue."
In reality, the governors' neutrality speaks to the failure of anyone in either party to put a clear stamp on this election. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, a Democrat, says, "I could be comfortable with any one of our eight candidates." Pause. "Well, maybe not No. 7 or No. 8."
Democrat Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, who says he has promised to raise $1.5 million on Feb. 6 for anyone who emerges as the likely nominee from the round of contests in two dozen states the day before, says he sees no point in endorsing before that. "Who cares in South Carolina who the hell Ed Rendell is supporting?" he asks.
Some see the governors' coyness as a way of positioning themselves for a possible vice presidential nomination while others suggest that neutrality is a polite way of saying no to the former colleagues now running for president - Richardson, Romney and Huckabee.
Whatever the real reasons, the governors, Republican or Democratic, are not trying to repeat their 1999 role as kingmakers. Maybe the examples of Gore and Bush are not ones they want to repeat.