LINCOLN — Here's a midsummer political quiz: What will Dave Heineman soon have in common with Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Janet Napolitano and Tim Pawlenty?
Give yourself a blue ribbon if you answered: They all chaired the National Governors Association.
Heineman, the 63-year-old conservative Republican known for his preference for McDonald's hamburgers and early bedtimes, is in line to become the association's chairman this Sunday at the group's annual meeting in Salt Lake City. He was named vice chairman at the association's meeting last July.
This will be the first time a Nebraska governor has headed the organization since 1951, when Val Peterson was elected to the position.
The post brings a higher national profile and probably more national media interviews for Heineman, as well as the prestige of being selected the “governors' governor” to push the agenda of the states' chief executives.
But it also allows Heineman to put a spotlight on Nebraska's success in surviving the recession, keeping its economy growing and holding down unemployment to 4.1 percent. That's the second-lowest rate in the country and less than half of the national unemployment rate of 9.2 percent.
The governor plans to make the economy, in particular jobs, his priority issues for his one-year term. The chairman gets to pick one issue to personally highlight, usually an issue in which his or her state has excelled or been especially innovative.
That means Heineman's mantra-like message of holding down spending and reducing taxes to improve the business climate will be heard more frequently on Fox News and CNBC, and not just at Main Street chicken dinners.
“It's going to be a year of showcasing Nebraska,” Heineman said in an interview last week. “It starts with our people — we don't spend money we don't have. Our common sense is something we can showcase and highlight.”
The National Governors Association, founded in 1908, acts as the mouthpiece for the nation's 50 governors on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
The group also studies “best practices” at the state level and develops policy papers on issues ranging from improving failing schools to promoting clean energy and providing homeland security. Heineman's role might lead to a couple of association seminars being held in Nebraska during the next year.
“It's prestigious, certainly, to lead the policy priorities of the nation's governors. He certainly will get his phone calls returned by people who live on Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report.
Clinton, a former five-term Arkansas governor, is the only association chairman to become president.
But the chairmanship has been held by several presidential candidates, including Minnesota's Pawlenty and Arkansas' Huckabee.
Napolitano is now the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security after serving as Arizona's governor.
Other former chairmen have moved on to posts in the Capitol, such as former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.
Iowa has had two chairmen in recent decades: current Gov. Terry Branstad in 1989-90 and former Gov. Robert Ray in 1975-76.
The “cream of the crop of governors” rises to the chairman's position, according to Chris Peterson, who was former Gov. Mike Johanns' press aide.
“This is not a circumstance where you just get in line and wait. Your colleagues recognize that you have the ability to lead. It's a prestigious accomplishment,” Peterson said.
The job is nonpartisan, alternating between Democrats and Republicans. In some respects, the chairmen might have to watch their political speech a bit because they represent governors of both parties.
But Heineman could have an indirect role in the 2012 presidential race, Peterson said, by helping frame the national debate through media interviews and the selection of association issues and speakers.
“More people are going to pay attention to what he has to say,” Peterson said. “It definitely raises Dave Heineman's profile and allows him to step onto the national stage. The question is what he makes of that.”
Such a post would open doors for national fundraising for say, a run for U.S. Senate.
But Heineman turned down such a run last year, saying he already had the best job in America and preferred to be an executive who can make policy rather than a freshman in the nation's most exclusive club.
Around the State Capitol, some have speculated that the chairmanship will raise Heineman's profile for a possible Cabinet post if a Republican is elected president. In three more years, Heineman will leave office because of term limits, after serving a state-record 10 years.
But the governor said flatly last week that he wasn't interested in a Cabinet post.
“If I wanted to go to Washington, D.C., I could be running for U.S. Senate right now,” Heineman said.
Duffy, the D.C. political writer, said that it's too early to talk about possible vice presidential picks and that seems unlikely that a governor from a small, reliably Republican state would be nominated. But who knows?
“Someone's going to need a running mate,” she said.
Heineman, a keen political observer and an early supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said he doesn't expect to get that call.
“We don't even know who the nominee is,” he said.
His new post with the governors association will bring extra work and travel, but Heineman said his top focus will remain leading the state.
He said the national position will help him “market” Nebraska's improving business and tax climate and maybe land a new business for the state.
“All of these relationships help,” Heineman said. “Here's what I hope: It's going to put a spotlight on Nebraska as a state that does it the right way.”
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