STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The nation's governors opened their annual gathering here yesterday with promises of bipartisan cooperation in the morning but started taking political potshots before the sun set.
Republican and Democratic governors attending the National Governors' Association conference held rival news conferences, giving a preview of themes that are likely to dominate the party presidential conventions and fall campaigns.
Exuding confidence that Texas Gov. George W. Bush would hold his lead in recent polls, GOP governors sought to portray their nominee-to-be as an experienced consensus-builder who would bring "civility" to Washington. They cast Vice President Al Gore as a partisan gut-fighter who would block needed reform.
"If you want results, you have to bring people together, the way Governor Bush has done," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Democrats focused on economic prosperity, for which they gave the Clinton administration the credit - especially Gore's tie-breaking vote in 1993 for the administration's deficit-cutting economic program. Warning that Bush would bring back the days of high interest rates and budget deficits, they expressed confidence that Gore would turn around his poll numbers when voters begin to focus on fundamental issues.
"We're full of optimism," Gov. Parris N. Glendening told reporters after the Democratic governors heard a briefing from the incoming Gore campaign chief, Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley.
Democrats also foreshadowed a likely line of attack as they homed in on Bush's record on health care. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean noted statistics showing that Texas has the nation's lowest percentage of people covered by health insurance.
"With all this prosperity, with Al Gore's tie-breaking vote, why is Texas going backwards?" Dean said.
Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III gave a glimpse of the Bush campaign's likely response - to tie Gore to the rejected Clinton health plan of 1994. "Al Gore's health plan is going to be just another colossal micromanagement scheme," Gilmore said.
Glendening, who will become association chairman at the close of the conference Tuesday, pointed to the 1988 election, when Vice President George Bush was far behind Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in some midsummer polls. "Go back to the last time you had the similar situation of a vice president running and Bush Senior won," Glendening said.
Vice presidential politics garnered much of the attention - especially on the Republican side.
With riveting issues in short supply, media attention focused on Ridge, host of the annual conference and one of the top prospects to join Bush on the Republican presidential ticket.
Ridge stole the show at the opening news conference, diverting attention from Chairman Michael O. Leavitt of Utah and Vice Chairman Glendening.
Reporters threw question after question at Ridge about his feelings on the vice presidency and the prospect of his being chosen by Bush, who is one of about a dozen governors skipping the conference.
"Obviously, it's been flattering," said Ridge. He said the speculation has let him "plant Pennsylvania's flag around the country" - especially in corporate boardrooms.
Dozens of reporters surrounded Ridge as he walked to the conference hall, peppering him with questions as photographers walked backward ahead of him. One video cameraman backed loudly into a light pole.
Leavitt and Glendening tried to refocus attention on the official agenda question: "What must a state do to prosper in the 21st century?"
Leavitt laid out a seven-point plan general enough that any governor could agree with it. The plan calls for "investing in people," especially through education; building state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure; treating residents as customers; streamlining taxes and regulations; nurturing entrepreneurship; creating high-tech magnet facilities; and preserving the quality of life.