- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

MIAMI — Sen. John McCain of Arizona brought his prospective 2008 presidential bid to what amounts to the “home turf” of a rival, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, seeking to line up support among the nation’s Republican governors.

Attendees at the annual conference of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) were wooed at dinners featuring the two men.

Mr. Romney, the outgoing RGA chairman, held two dinners here at the same time on the same night — one in secret for governors and donors he wanted to recruit to his side for 2008 and the other a publicly scheduled dinner for the remainder of Republican governors, spouses and donors.

Mr. McCain’s well-organized campaign, however, has been stalking Republican gatherings of every kind for more than a year. For this event, McCain partisans, despite initial objections from Mr. Romney’s RGA, slipped invitations under Doral Hotel room doors Tuesday night, inviting Republicans to a reception the Arizona senator sponsored last night at Don Shula’s, a fancy and famous restaurant here.

Historically, governors and ex-governors have had the advantage in presidential elections — four of the past five presidents were governors first — but some of Mr. Romney’s fellow governors say that right now, the 2008 race is shaping up as a battle between senators, with Mr. McCain the leading prospect on the Republican side and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York as the top hopeful for Democrats.

“That’s a fair assessment,” said Gov. Mark Sanford, a popular South Carolina conservative. “Right now, that’s the way a lot of people see it.”

Despite Mr. McCain’s high ratings in public opinion polls, some conservative Republicans view him with suspicion because of his support for campaign-finance regulation, sponsorship of immigration legislation that would offer citizenship to illegal aliens and other maverick stances.

Mr. Romney, a multimillionaire from a legendary political family, is casting himself as a conservative who can coalesce the anti-McCain forces in the Republican party — a role once considered perfect for Sen. George Allen of Virginia before his defeat last month. Another conservative, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, announced this week he would not seek the presidency in 2008.

In addition to Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney, the 2008 Republican presidential field also includes former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a popular figure but one whom most in the GOP see as too liberal on social issues to win in crucial primaries and caucuses.

Mr. Sanford, himself courted by some conservatives to make a 2008 run, mentioned Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas as two other Republican alternatives to Mr. McCain.

“But what I consistently hear from the conservative base that I talk to is that they’re still looking,” said the South Carolina governor, who was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote this year in a state that hosts a key early presidential primary in 2008.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, the incoming RGA chairman who shouldered most of the hosting duties at the scheduled dinner, said the 2008 Republican nomination contest is still wide open.

This year’s RGA conference was a considerably shrunken affair, with the Republican share of the nation’s governors having steadily dwindled from a high of 38 in 1998 to the 22 governors it will have next year after the net loss of six governorships in last month’s elections.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry attributed the party’s gubernatorial losses to the same anti-Republican mood that cost the party the majority control in Congress.

“National issues, especially the war in Iraq, had a profound impact on state races, including campaigns for governor,” he said.”Immigration was another powerful issue.”

The Texas governor said the party needs to stand up for its conservative principles.

“Nationally, if you don’t act like a Republican, the chances are they won’t send you back. If the voters want to elect a Democrat, they’ll choose the real thing, not a counterfeit,” Mr. Perry said.

The McCain-Romney maneuverings created a stir at the RGA conference. Mr. McCain sent dinner invitations to uncommitted governors and other Republicans attending. But the night before, Mr. Romney secretly invited a few fellow Republican governors and wealthy donors to his own special event: a private dinner at a popular South Beach restaurant, Smith & Wolensky, held simultaneously as another dinner at the Pearl Restaurant, listed on the regular published conference schedule.

“Why did Governor Romney invite me?” one Republican governor wondered aloud in a background interview. “Because I’m not committed to him or McCain or anybody else, and so he wanted to recruit me, I suppose. I’m still not committed.”

Mr. Romney shuttled back and fourth between the two dinners, held about four blocks apart.

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