MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced new members of his state's workforce and said the proceeds from a projected budget surplus belong to the taxpayers. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, fending off allegations of political retribution by his aides, offered up his state as a model of bipartisan cooperation.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a litany of ideas to help strapped homeowners and school districts while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took a victory lap of sorts and vowed to push through an increase in the state's minimum wage during his final year in office.
"Not only is Maryland stronger than before — Maryland is cleaner, smarter, safer, healthier, more entrepreneurial and more competitive than she was before the recession hit," O'Malley said.
All governors look forward to an annual address before state lawmakers and the public, a mini-bully pulpit that offers a televised platform to publicize their accomplishments and rally support for their agenda. For a group of governors with White House aspirations, the speeches offer a framework for how they might appeal to early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and how they might one day govern.
Other prominent governors will command their state's spotlight in the coming months. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is seeking re-election this year, will outline his legislative priorities on Feb. 24 while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will address lawmakers at the open of his state's legislative session in March.
Governors with an eye on the White House have tried to draw a results-oriented contrast with Congress, which has been gripped by gridlock and poor approval ratings during President Barack Obama's tenure. Among Republicans, lawmakers like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan could compete for the party's nomination in 2016 against a group of governors and ex-governors that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Governors have a real political advantage in this climate. They're the ones who can tout achievements in their states," said Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina GOP.
Among Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remains a prohibitive favorite for the party's nomination if she decides to run, an enviable position that could force O'Malley or Cuomo to the sidelines.
But for now, an upcoming legislative session offers opportunities.
In their speeches, Republicans Christie and Walker pointed to job growth and declining unemployment rates under their watch and pledged to hold the line on spending increases.
Christie, who sailed to re-election last year but has been dogged by a political scandal, said "no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation" during the past four years than New Jersey. He outlined plans to bolster student achievement in the state's K-12 system and is proposing changes to the state's tax system next month that won't include a tax increase.
Walker, meanwhile, outlined an economic plan that would fit neatly into a presidential bid: a proposed $504 million property and income tax cut that he said was possible because of a projected budget surplus of more than $900 million. "It's your money," Walker said.
Cuomo and O'Malley have put themselves in step with the Democratic Party's progressive wing by championing issues like gay marriage and gun control. In their speeches, both offered proposals that would work in tandem with President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union address.
Cuomo reiterated his push for expanded full-day pre-kindergarten, a top priority for Obama, and said he would seek a $2 billion tax relief proposal that would include property tax rebates for certain homeowners. Under Cuomo's plan, school districts could pay for technology upgrades through a $2 billion bond referendum while top performing teachers would be eligible for a $20,000 bonus.
Cuomo also wants to allow medical marijuana for patients at 20 hospitals, an approach that pot advocates call overly cautious.
Like Obama, O'Malley wants to raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016. His Annapolis speech also touched upon one of the president's biggest political liabilities, the health care overhaul. O'Malley acknowledged the bumpy rollout of his state's health care exchange as "a source of great frustration" but said his administration would keep trying.
Al From, who worked with Bill Clinton at the Democratic Leadership Council when Clinton served as Arkansas governor, noted that Obama remains an anomaly as a former senator who reached the White House. Before the 2008 election, four of the past five U.S. presidents had been governors.
"Governors are like the president in that they get judged on their performance, not their votes," From said. "They deliver a policy and live with the consequences — good and bad."
Elsewhere, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who has generated quiet but persistent national buzz among Republican donors, made a pitch for attracting highly educated immigrants to his state. The plan aims to help revitalize Detroit, which is trying to emerge from the nation's largest public bankruptcy.
"A comprehensive solution would be fabulous ... but while that discussion is going on, why hold everything else up?" Snyder said in an interview. "It's an incredibly stupid position to say, 'Let's tell these brilliant people to leave.'"
Democrats have made Snyder, Kasich and Walker among their top targets in the November elections, and their defeat would damage their national ambitions. Christie's presidential prospects could be hurt if several investigations, including those of lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, undercut his pitch as a bold, bipartisan leader.
After Walker outlined his agenda in Madison, the Democratic minority leader in the state assembly, Peter Barca, faulted the governor for cutting education funding and rejecting the federal Medicaid expansion. He said Walker's pitch on jobs was overblown.
"It is all misleading talk, no action," Barca said.
Not every speech goes to plan. One of the newly hired workers Walker brought out for his speech, a welder who wore his helmet and fire-retardant gloves, was later revealed to be a registered sex offender with two felonies and three drunken driving arrests.
Walker said he was frustrated that the man's employer, snow blower manufacturer Ariens Co., had not done a background check before recommending him as an example of how Wisconsin's economy is turning around.
"There were thousands of other examples we could have used," Walker said, "and that would have been preferred."