BOCA RATON, Florida — -- At least six attendees at a gathering of Republican governors here are mulling presidential bids, and it was clear from the action that the 2016 race is in full swing.
The Republican Governors Association’s outgoing chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has been vocal about considering a run for the White House, and said here that he will announce his decision next year. He noted that while running the RGA was his “first priority over the last year,” now, “I’ve got some decisions to make. I’m not shy, as you know. I’ll let you know.”
Attendees met with donors and talked strategy during the conference, but it was also a victory celebration for the GOP's big wins earlier this month. This was especially true for Christie, who guided the governors' group and was able to net victories even in blue states such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois. The successes will likely give him a boost going into the presidential contest.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, also on the list of those considering a run for the top office, said he “absolutely” agreed the next GOP presidential nominee should be a governor.
“I think our best leaders come from the ranks of our governors,” Jindal told ABC News in an interview. “They have actually gotten executive branch experience. They've run things, they've balanced budgets. The reality is, on the Republican side we like to point to Ronald Reagan [and] on the Democratic side they point to Bill Clinton as two of the more successful recent presidents. Both of them were former governors. We have got a president now who hasn't run anything before he was elected president of the United States. That inexperience is showing.”
He even had some advice for the Democratic Party, saying its members should “look to their ranks of governors, as well.”
Christie agreed, saying he thinks it will be a governor "because we are better at it than people who do not have the experience of running large enterprises.”
Not everyone at the conference agreed that the nominee had to be a governor, though. GOP consultant Mike Biundo, who is possible 2016 contender Sen. Rand Paul’s chief strategist in New Hampshire and who previously worked for Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid, said “ideas and vision [are what] matters, backbone and knowledge is vital.”
“If it was only the previous office they held that was important, then we all would be looking for the next President Carter,” Biundo said. “We also need a candidate in 2016 that is willing to not only stand up for what they believe, but also has the willingness to expand our traditional base and fight for all votes.”
The conference was thick with chumminess between the potential rivals, but is it real? The men joking with one another on the same stage here will likely be at each other’s throats in a relatively short amount of time, something Christie acknowledged.
“If a group of us runs for president, we will compete with each other," he said. "Anybody who is going to run understands the nature of competition.”
Although the gathering was clouded in laughter and jokes, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made it clear at two separate sessions that he was not only older, but had more experience than many of his potential opponents. Kasich is serving his second term as Ohio’s governor, but also served 18 years in Congress, including as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
At a session Wednesday with the five possible presidential contenders called “Republican Governors: The Road Ahead,” the 62-year old Kasich spoke about his years in Congress and consistently chimed in with more moderate approaches than his fellow governors, sounding more like a problem solver than simply someone who disagreed with President Obama.
On Thursday, Kasich noted his work on immigration reform since 1986, which Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 47, noted was when he was in high school. Laughter ensued, but Kasich jokingly jabbed back, saying, “It’s OK, you don’t look much younger.”
Considering there are at least half a dozen governors under the same roof here with the same goal, Christie and another possible 2016 contender, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, were asked if they had used the gathering to discuss the next presidential campaign or made pacts to play nice in what will likely be a nasty intra-party brawl.
“No, no pacts,” Christie said, before deadpanning: “I haven’t seen Pence in the corner making any pacts with anybody, but I’ll be watching. ... I don’t think any of us has a secret handshake or a blood oath for what we will do and what we won’t do.”
Pence called himself a “small-town guy” and said that, when it comes to 2016, he is “humbled at every mention” of him “in the company of men and women talked about for the highest office in the land.”
Many of the governors praised Christie’s work during the midterms and his exhaustive schedule on behalf of gubernatorial candidates, which took him to early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire several times. Pence said “the country owes a debt of gratitude” to Christie. The RGA spent $130 million in the midterm races and, in January, there will be 31 governors in statehouses across the country, which is the most for either party in 16 years.
At the session Wednesday with five possible presidential contenders, NBC’s Chuck Todd, the moderator, asked the governors when the 2016 race should begin. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the “more legitimate question” was: “When did it start?”
“I think the campaign has engaged,” Perry said. “We are talking about issues here that are going to affect the presidential election in 2016.”