BOCA RATON, Fla. — A half-dozen potential Republican presidential contenders spent last week peacocking across the sprawling grounds of a pink-hued luxury resort, schmoozing with donors and sizing up the competition in the party’s most fractured field in decades.
They rarely criticized each other in public, but there were subtle jabs.
Within hours of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gracing the cover of a magazine in an illustration of him kissing a baby’s head, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal suggested the party needs bold leaders, not showmen.
“We have enough politicians who try to be celebrities and kiss babies and cut ribbons,” Jindal said.
Whether it was an intentional shot at Christie or not, the looming 2016 contest changed the context of every speech, interview and panel discussion at the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference. The summit at the oceanside Boca Raton Resort & Club felt like a test run for what is increasingly shaping up to be a brutal showdown for the GOP presidential nomination among more than a dozen potential contenders, including a cluster of governors.
In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent recent weeks basking in the glows of grandmotherhood and applause at a few public events — without any major challenger for the Democratic nod, should she choose to pursue it.
While the potential GOP field appears stronger than four years ago, the Republicans are without a front-runner.
“There are, like, 16 people who could run,” said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who downplayed the potential risk of so many candidates at each other’s throats. “They won’t all run, of course, but a lot of quality in there.”
The candidates aren’t expected to start formally declaring their intentions until the first quarter of next year. But the developing tensions were already apparent as five potential candidates appeared together on stage in a packed, grand ballroom to answering questions from moderator Chuck Todd, the host of NBC’s “Meet The Press” — a dress rehearsal of sorts for the looming primary.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former congressman, repeatedly crossed words with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, challenging Walker’s telling of the history of the Bill Clinton administration. On another panel, Walker mentioned that he’d been in high school at a time when Kasich had voted on a piece of immigration legislation.
“Well, you don’t look that much younger,” Kasich quipped.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry left little doubt that the race is on.
“I think the campaign has engaged. We’re talking about issues here that are going to affect the presidential election in 2016,” Perry said. “I think we need to have this conversation with America.”
The governors who would be president agreed on one thing: their superiority as candidates over their nongubernatorial competition. Those in attendance repeatedly stressed that the party’s best hope for reclaiming the White House lies with a chief executive at the top of the ticket.
But they dismissed the idea of any kind of advance pact to ensure they don’t inflict too much damage during the primary.
“Um, no, no pacts, at least none that I’m involved in,” said Christie, joking that he’d be closely watching Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, another potential contender, to make sure he wasn’t forging any deals.
Behind the scenes, however, that’s exactly what the contenders were aiming for.
Dozens of the party’s biggest donors enjoyed private audiences with prospective candidates. They mingled in hotel corridors, at fancy dinners, on a nearby golf course where basketball great Michael Jordan was spotted, and at fetes, like an oceanside reception decorated with twinkling lights, a clam cake station and ice sculptures.
The guest list included Republican heavy hitters like Paul Singer, Anthony Scaramucci and Foster Friess.
Christie, who arrived with what appeared to be his entire senior team, said he was enjoying spending time with donors “in an atmosphere that’s a lot more relaxed, like this one this week.”
Indeed, one top consultant who has served as senior adviser on numerous campaigns was spotted walking through the lobby in his bathing suit on the way to the pool between meetings. And at all times, lobbyists from companies like Google hovered, slipping business cards to governors and aides, who left one speed dating-style session with pockets bursting.
Still, the presidential undertones were more subtle at times than in annual retreats of years past when prospective candidates like Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani held private meetings to craft campaign strategy with key supporters.
“In prior election cycles, the RGA postelection meeting has been the kicking off point for presidential campaigns,” said GOP operative Charlie Spies, who led Romney’s super PAC in 2012, echoing several other longtime attendees. “This year’s event was more low-key.”
The event was “not about asking. This is about thanking and congratulating,” said longtime Republican adviser and money man Fred Malek. “Part of it also is inspiration so that people will have their mind set on moving ahead in the next cycle.”