Obama's Critics: 2012 Contenders?

Governors take to airwaves to pan stimulus, leave door open on future WH run.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2009 -- Today, the nation's governors took to the airwaves. Topic one: Harsh Republican criticism of President Obama's economic stimulus. Topic 2: Are the three harshest critics running for president?

Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty and South Carolina's Mark Sanford all deny that they're actively planning a run in 2012. But each seemed to leave the door to the White House at least slightly ajar.

As the Republican party struggles to find its voice in the age of Obama, several GOP governors seem to be using the stimulus as an early audition for the 2012 presidential race.

"They're trying to keep their options open for running for president in 2012 and they understand that this vote could define them," Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, told ABC News.

The stimulus could also define President Obama, who has said if it doesn't work to turn the economy around, "then I'll be a one-term president."

At one end of the spectrum is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has embraced Obama's stimulus.

"What the president is trying to do is not only help my state, but help my people," Crist told ABC's Nightline in a recent interview.

Then there are the Republicans who are betting the stimulus will fail. Jindal and Sanford have said they will reject added unemployment benefits that come with federal strings.

"Can we continue to stack debt on top of debt on top of debt to solve a problem that was created by too much debt?" Sanford told ABC. "I think that the logical answer is no."

Their fellow governors knew just what to do with the money their colleagues are turning down.

"I'll take it," California Republian Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week." "I'll take his money too."

Some potential 2012 GOP candidates are hedging their bets. Pawlenty calls the stimulus extravagantly wasteful. But he says he'll take the money because it will bring jobs to Minnesota.

Schwarzenegger says the economic spiral is too dire to play politics.

"We should go beyond all this. Is it a Republican idea or is it a Democratic idea? Which philosophy does it fall under?" he said. "It doesn't matter."

Schwarzenegger has little to lose in the presidential jockeying. As an American born in Austria, he is constitutionally barred from running for the highest office in the land.

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