For an ambitious group of Republican governors, next year's elections could be a springboard to bigger things in 2016.
Just don't talk about the White House — yet.
The annual Republican Governors Association meeting this week included a bullish outlook for a party that will defend 22 seats in 2014.
Bashing Washington dysfunction at every turn, the governors offered up their can-do records — and themselves — as a model for a party looking to return to power.
As if to emphasize the point, George W. Bush swooped in for a surprise lunch, sharing stories from his time as Texas governor and as president. It was lost on no one that a member of their club was the last Republican to win the White House.
"He encouraged all of us and agrees, I believe, with us that the best breeding ground for presidents is the governors," said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, following a two-hour steakhouse lunch.
High-profile governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana cautioned the party against looking past the 2014 elections to the 2016 presidential race. But the jockeying for a White House bid was the quiet subtext.
A look at some of the Republican governors who could play significant roles next year and beyond:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
No one generated more interest than Christie, who arrived in Arizona only two weeks after a sweeping re-election victory in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.
The new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie will raise money for fellow governors, encourage party activists and court financial donors in 2014.
The political map could be advantageous for Christie. The most competitive governors' races are expected to be in states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, places where any future Republican nominee would need to connect. And any vulnerable governor Christie helps could become a future ally.
Christie isn't exactly plotting pathways to 270 electoral votes — at least not publicly. GOP leaders, he said, "start thinking about 2016 at our own peril."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
Jindal preaches a message of substance over personality. Republicans need to define what they're for, Jindal says, not what they're against.
Jindal ended his role as chairman of the organization and suggested he might play the role of policy maven in future GOP presidential primaries.
A former congressman and Bush administration health policy expert, Jindal said the health care law was actually "a design problem" instead of a matter of poor execution. He said Republicans need to put out alternatives, tossing out ideas like allowing people to buy insurance policies across state lines, pooling costs and offering tax credits.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Kasich, a former congressman who served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, had choice words for his former colleagues' handling of spending and health care.
Citing frustration after the government shutdown, he voiced support for an amendment to the Constitution that would require Congress to balance the federal budget.
And in a 2016-tinged twist on health care, Kasich said Obama's overhaul was "really HillaryCare," noting the former first lady's role in reform efforts during the 1990s.
Kasich also signaled a kinship with Christie, marveling at his celebrity and ability to connect with voters. Christie repaid the favor, telling reporters, "I love John Kasich."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Dressed in a dark suit and wearing glasses, Perry cut a different figure from the gaffe-prone — remember "Oops!" — presidential candidate who flamed out during the 2012 Republican primaries.
Perry now deflects memories of the past with a sense of humor. When Kasich suggested that Republicans need to revamp the way it conducts presidential debates during a panel, Perry drew laughs when he clapped and yelled, "Hell yeah!"
Fellow governors said Perry's economic record is no joke. Several governors pointed to Perry's job creation in Texas as a model, and the governor cited the need to talk to "people's hearts" on issues like immigration.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
He wasn't in Arizona. He was promoting his new book, "Unintimidated," about his fight with public-sector unions and victory in a union-backed recall election.
But Walker remains a favorite of Republican donors and is viewed as someone who could win support throughout the party's rival factions.
While Walker couldn't make it to Arizona, he got some face time anyway. Last weekend, Walker took in a Green Bay Packers road game against the New York Giants.
His seat-mate? Christie.
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