When the leaders of the Republican Party assemble in Tampa this week, they'll have their eyes set on capturing control of the federal government and propelling Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan into the White House.
The roster of speakers at the GOP convention, however, tells a different story about the people at the real center of power in the party. Convention organizers have stacked the schedule with nearly a dozen Republican governors who have defined the party's agenda and helped redefine its national brand — since 2008.
If you didn't know better, you might look at the star attractions in Tampa and think you were at a gathering of the Republican Governors Association.
Most prominent will be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the RGA vice chairman who's set to deliver the convention's keynote address. Over the course of the convention, he'll be joined at the podium by a who's who of his fellow governors: Wisconsin's Scott Walker, New Mexico's Susana Martinez, Ohio's John Kasich, South Carolina's Nikki Haley, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Virginia's Bob McDonnell, who chairs the RGA. (Florida's Rick Scott had been scheduled to speak Monday, but that day's events were canceled by Tropical Storm Isaac.)
The sheer number of governors speaking is partially the result of Republicans not controlling the presidency. Any time a party is out of power in Washington, leaders in the states assume a greater level of importance.
But several of those governors are political stars in their own right, with one — Christie — heavily pressured to take his own shot at the presidency this year. Others were considered potential vice presidential picks for Romney.
The gubernatorial color of the convention reflects this reality: If Romney were to lose in November, Republican governors would have as good a chance as anyone — or better — of stepping into the vacuum. In the event of an open-seat presidential race in 2016, the gubernatorial bench is long and deep.
"If you look at who outside of our nominees is generally looked at as some of the best and brightest people in our Republican Party, whether it's their oratory or skills or ability to get things done, it's Republican governors," said McDonnell.
Walker, who became a national leader through more than a year of pitched battle with organized labor, said the governor-heavy speaking program would help send a message he has recommended to the GOP all year: "We're reformers."
"Real reform is happening in the states and it's being led by Republican governors," Walker said. "Christie and I get the most attention, but there are a lot of other governors who have done big things in the past year and a half."
Former New Hampshire governor and Romney adviser John Sununu said the importance of governors isn't merely a Republican phenomenon, but that the states are a more essential building block for the GOP right now.
"There's a lot more Republican governors than there are Democratic governors right now, so the center of gravity leans Republican when you're talking about up-and-coming governors being the lifeblood of the party," Sununu said, mentioning several outgoing governors as well: "You look at some of the ones that just finished, like Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour and the contributions they made, and Jeb Bush."
While congressional Republicans — Ryan chief among them — have helped set an ideological direction for their party, a cross-section of GOP strategists and party elders agreed that state governments remain the most important center of gravity for conservatives.
Thanks to divided control of power in Washington and record disgust with Beltway lawmakers, Republicans say it's only natural that the center-right coalition looks to state executives for leadership.
"The Republicans in the House, led by my friend Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, they've taken a pretty strong stand on the need to curtail entitlements and cut spending," McDonnell said. "I happen to think they're right, but as long as there's gridlock and constant combat up there, people just don't believe Washington's going to be able to solve problems."
The GOP's emphasis on gubernatorial power is more than a reaction against D.C. dysfunction. Since the Obama-Biden victory in 2008, governors have been at the vanguard of the Republican comeback.
It was the election of McDonnell and Christie in 2009 that sent a first warning sign to national Democrats in Washington. In 2010, the gains Republicans made on the state level were at least as dramatic as their victories in Washington. Since then, it has been policy battles in the state capitals — from the Wisconsin and Ohio labor laws, to education reform efforts in New Mexico and Tennessee, to immigration battles in Arizona and Alabama — that have represented the GOP's greatest substantive contributions.
In fact, it seems almost like a quirk of political history that the GOP presidential ticket doesn't include a sitting governor.
Romney is a former Massachusetts governor who once headed the RGA. As a candidate, he has sometimes embraced the federalist spirit of the post-2010 GOP, calling for a devolution of government programs to the states and defending the health care law he enacted as an exercise in states' rights.
Ryan, meanwhile, is a lifelong legislator with no executive experience. Still, governors pointed to him as perhaps the lone congressman who captures the egg-breaking, problem-solving ethos of the Republican gubernatorial community.
"He's the only one in Washington that's really put together a comprehensive plan to deal with this massive federal deficit and debt," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. "It's very much along the lines of what we governors have done."
Walker said that for Wisconsin swing voters: "Everything that you would like about me in that regard is personified in Paul Ryan."
Regardless of the outcome in the presidential race, GOP governors can almost certainly count on greater sway in 2013. A GOP victory would likely vault some into the Cabinet and make a conservative governor's policy wish-list far more feasible. Certain kinds of federal waivers and funding decisions could be dramatically easier under a Republican president.
And if Romney loses? Few will speculate directly, but the implications for 2016 are clear.
"I honestly believe that Gov. Romney's gonna win, and so I think it's really a question of hopefully eight years from now, who we'll be talking about as the next governor to step into the leadership position," said former New York Gov. George Pataki. "The states have been the force of the strongest candidates, certainly since Ronald Reagan."