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State house crowd struggling this time around

IF EVERY United States senator looks in the mirror and sees a president staring back, as the joke in Washington goes, then every governor should start reciting into the toothpaste tube, "My fellow Americans." While no senator has gotten directly elected to the White House since 1960, four of the last five presidents ran states before running the country.

So why doesn't that old gubernatorial magic seem to be working this time? None of the current top contenders for either party's presidential nomination has held that job. When he quit the race recently, Tom Vilsack became the third former governor to do so, after fellow Democrats Evan Bayh and Mark Warner. The GOP's George Pataki, after all but getting in, now seems to be all but out.

Their peers who remain in the race are struggling to hit double digits. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Mitt Romney receiving 8 percent in a GOP primary trial heat and Mike Huckabee and Tommy Thompson at 2 percent. Democrat Bill Richardson makes it to 5 percent.

Back in December, 74 percent of those surveyed in another NBC/Journal poll said they'd be enthusiastic or comfortable with a presidential candidate who is or was a governor. And the three US senators currently considered top-tier are, in their own ways, trying to run like heck from Washington. So why no love for the state house crowd?

The Beltway is the center ring right now, and the governors are having trouble landing punches in the biggest bout in politics. The Iraq war debate, regardless of whether all the talking produces a tangible outcome, is a rhetorical battle royale between the Bush administration and Congress, and it provides a platform for the senators in the race.

This is particularly true for the Democrats. Richardson's résumé might be rounder than Chris Dodd's, including on foreign policy, but Dodd's ability to play a role in the debate guarantees him Sunday-show appearances, adoration on liberal blogs, and -- at least in theory -- the chance to cast votes. The Senate debate may prove to be all bluster, but the ability to demagogue over a nonbinding resolution gets one more attention these days than actual oversight of part of the National Guard.

In Romney's case, being outside the spotlight on the war isn't necessarily a curse. Let Iraq sink rival John McCain, whose poll standing is suffering because of his vocal support for a troop increase. In a primary dominated by conservative activists, Romney's Massachusetts millstone is no bigger than Rudy's New York headache.

Governors make for strong general election contenders because of their track records of reaching across the aisle, but the political romance between governors and the White House overlooks the reality. Bayh, Vilsack, and Warner were all going to depend heavily on their credentials as moderate Democratic executives of red or purple states. But that's not the way to excite primary voters of either party -- as Romney knows and has demonstrated with his wobbly turn to the right.

And among those governors who are eligible to run for president (i.e., not Arnold), there isn't a proverbial rock star among them. Had Romney sought and won a second term, he might be as close to a star as the state house crowd could get. But again, governing Massachusetts isn't a badge of honor in a GOP presidential primary. Nor is the state mighty enough to elevate Romney's stature in the way that California and Texas did for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

It's difficult to imagine two presidential tickets without a governor anywhere to be seen, just based on the odds. The job pool from which Americans tend to elect their presidents and vice presidents is pretty small, and there's no sitting veep in the running this time. All the attention is on the front-runners right now. But the slog to the presidential nomination is long and demanding, and there is ample reason to doubt whether any governors will be left standing.

Elizabeth Wilner is the political director of NBC News.