Pay little attention to the official agenda for this weekend's meeting of the National Governors Association. It's the presidential politics being played in the hallways and private rooms that may matter most.
Around panel discussions on cybersecurity and education reform, several state executives will spend much of the NGA's winter meeting looking ahead at 2016. After all, the three-day gathering that begins Friday comes at a critical time for ambitious Republican governors looking to make the jump into the presidential contest.
Each comes with his own mission: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is trying to capitalize on his newfound momentum. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is fighting to preserve his top-tier status. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence want to remind Washington's political elite that they ought to be part of the 2016 conversation.
The weekend is packed with private events featuring "a lot of significant donors who are worth courting for anyone who has presidential aspirations," said Fred Malek, a high-profile GOP fundraiser himself.
And beyond donors, the gathering offers presidential hopefuls and their allies the opportunity to court political strategists, congressional leaders and even other governors who could play a crucial role in the election of the next president.
The weekend won't include at least two high-profile governors weighing 2016 bids: Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Several other Republican contenders, a group that includes senators, former governors and political newcomers, will spend the weekend courting supporters elsewhere, a reminder that the presidential field is far from set a year before the first primary ballots are cast.
Walker arrives in Washington on the rise, having impressed political observers during a recent Iowa appearance. His impromptu decision to ditch his suit jacket may have helped deflate concerns that he lacked the necessary charisma to compete nationally.
"He said, 'What do you think if I take my jacket off, roll up my sleeves and walk the stage?'" said Rick Wiley, a senior adviser to Walker, describing the moments before his Iowa speech during a recent conference call with donors. "As we move forward in this adventure that we're about to undertake, we have the ability to talk about some of the great things that the governor has accomplished in Wisconsin."
Walker's appearance follows a brief New York trip that included personal visits with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and businessman Donald Trump. Aides report Walker and his top advisers plan to use their time in Washington to meet privately with donors, congressional leaders, political operatives and conservative leaders, declining to be more specific.
Earlier in the month, Walker formed a tax-exempt fundraising committee known as Our American Revival to bolster his likely presidential run, and subsequently announced the hiring of key policy advisers and staff in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"We know it's a long way off," Walker told reporters in early February. "Should I choose to get in the race, we're going to do what I've done in Wisconsin, which is to hone in on grassroots efforts, to be in for the long haul, not just for a week or two worth of buzz."
Christie arrived in Washington on Thursday facing stubborn questions about his political future. He has struggled so far to compete with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the early race for support from donors, but he has shown little sign of backing off a presidential run.
During a speech Thursday evening at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's annual Congressional Dinner in Washington, Christie largely stuck to state issues, but he continued to press an economic message he's been discussing in early-voting states.
"The fact is that we have to grow this economy. Not the government. We need to grow the economy," Christie said, adding that he would continue to fight to help middle-class families who are "getting squeezed, not only in New Jersey, but across the country."
Christie aides said he had an aggressive schedule of meetings with fellow governors and donors planned while he's in town for the winter meeting. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association in the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections, Christie built close relationships with many fellow governors, including some who could prove helpful if they choose to endorse him.
The RGA is hosting a series of dinners and receptions for donors through the weekend, as well as a governors-only meeting. Both Christie and Walker are expected to attend several of the events. Among the crowd will be the kind of high-dollar donors both men are trying to charm.
Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio questioned the suggestion — often repeated at gatherings of governors — that the next president will be a governor.
"I think national security may end up being the predominant issue in this campaign," Rubio said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I do think that because they don't deal with national security issues on a regular basis it's going to take some time for some of these governors to become conversant."