SALT LAKE CITY — Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has a tough message for fellow Republican Jon Huntsman Jr., who may be the only presidential candidate attending next week's National Governors Association annual meeting in Utah.
"If I get a chance to, I'll tell him what a stupid mistake he's making," Branstad told the Deseret News, referring to the former Utah governor's decision to skip next year's Iowa's presidential caucus, the first votes that will be cast in the 2012 election.
An unknown candidate has no business not showing up in Iowa, Branstad said in a telephone interview. Huntsman said last month he wouldn't campaign in Iowa because he opposes ethanol subsidies, seen as a deal-breaker for many voters there.
In fact, Huntsman won't even make an appearance in Iowa until August, when he'll fly in to participate in the Republican Party of Iowa/Fox News/Washington Examiner debate in Ames.
Branstad said if Huntsman is coming to the NGA meeting in the hopes of finding support among the GOP governors, he's likely to be disappointed.
"I think he'd be better off spending his time in Iowa, I really do. The governors are going to be focused on state issues, not presidential politics," Branstad said, acknowledging there will, however, be some private discussions about the wide-open Republican presidential field.
Republican governors haven't gotten behind a presidential candidate since George W. Bush ran in 2000, and don't appear to be in any hurry to back any of the current contenders vying for the chance to unseat President Barack Obama.
Especially since one of their own, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, appears increasingly likely to enter the race. And there's no shortage of former governors already running. Besides Huntsman, there's Mitt Romney, who served as governor of Massachusetts after running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor.
Romney reportedly will not be at the meeting, nor, apparently, will Perry.
"It's a little early," said University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle. He said the GOP governors declined to get involved in the 2008 race even though Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were among the candidates.
"It was better to sit it out," Hagle said, than choose among their own in that race. "Whether that happens again, we'll see."
Even though Perry won't be there, he's likely to be the focus when the discussion turns to presidential politics, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"He would immediately shake up the race," Wilson said. "He's the one current governor who could potentially be a major player in the presidential race. He's an obvious person to be talked about."
Wilson said the GOP presidential candidates are looking to the governors in their party for help campaigning in their states. "Every governor has a grass-roots campaign network," he said. "It's really a question of wooing individual governors."
Any former governor is welcome to attend the association's annual meetings, NGA spokeswoman Jodi Omear said, including those currently running for president.
Presidential candidates who haven't governed a state, however, definitely are not on the guest list — except, of course, the current commander in chief, who always receives an invitation.
"NGA meetings are an important bipartisan forum," Omear said. "We are more about policy and best practices than politics."
The White House has already said that Obama won't be coming to the Utah meeting, Omear said. "We were just told it didn't work in his schedule."
Branstad, who served as Iowa's governor from 1983 to 1999 and then won another term last year, said he's not endorsing a candidate. "What I'd rather be is a good host and encourage people to come here," he said.
Still, he said that won't stop him from sharing his private views with other governors, including at next week's NGA meeting.
"A lot of times they ask me who's doing well in Iowa and what I think," he said. "I've never been bashful about sharing that."