Josh Kurtz -- O’Malley vs. McDonnell: Brought to You by The Washington Post

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It’s probably safe to assume that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) would like to be president of the United States some day.

It’s equally safe to assume that his counterpart across the Potomac, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), would also like to be president some day.

To the extent that they can, both are taking early steps to ensure that they can build national campaigns sometime in the future. It’s really too soon for anything else – 2016, after all, is five years away.

Five years before he was elected president, Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator who had been clobbered in a Congressional primary a few years earlier, as important in Springfield as, say, state Sen. Lisa Gladden (D) is right now in Annapolis. There was some buzz attached to Obama in 2003 – he was by then running for the U.S. Senate, and he had been the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. But you can’t say he was preparing to run for president then in anything but the most abstract sense. If anything, by virtue of their day jobs and their important party positions, O’Malley and McDonnell are closer to the White House now than Obama was then.

But to read certain political media these days – especially The Washington Post – you’d think that both men are already campaigning heavily for the presidency, with their sights focused squarely on one another as major rivals. This is pure fantasy, fueled mostly by the Post, which, for all its stature as one of the nation’s great newspapers, can play “homer” with the best of them.

Let’s make a few stipulations: It was interesting, especially for the hometown paper, when McDonnell was elevated recently to the post of chairman of the Republican Governors Association at a time when O’Malley was already chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. It was also purely coincidental: McDonnell was RGA vice chairman and moved up when Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), his predecessor, decided to run for president, forfeiting his RGA job.

From a practical standpoint, it means O’Malley and McDonnell are responsible for charting their parties’ strategies and advancing their messages for the four gubernatorial elections of 2011 – in West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi – where the results largely seem like a foregone conclusion. Whether either O’Malley or McDonnell re-ups for 2012, when 11 more gubernatorial races are on tap – or whether their colleagues want them to – is anybody’s guess.

To be sure, it’s a nice platform for both men, good for building support and collecting chits should either decide to run for national office. But the Post blew it up into some kind of regional war, a test of both men’s records and style of governing, as if the results in Mississippi this November will be a referendum on Martin O’Malley and Bob McDonnell (the Maryland Democratic Party at the same time gratuitously used McDonnell’s promotion at the RGA to blast his record in Richmond). That’s laughable.

Let’s also acknowledge that the recent Virginia-centered earthquake, followed quickly by Hurricane Irene, gave both men some time in the national spotlight. But that wasn’t a political opportunity: Being on the air was part of their jobs, and they shared the national airwaves with a half dozen or so other governors whose states were also slammed by Mother Nature.

That didn’t prevent the Post and Politico from presenting the hurricane as a political moment, assessing whether or not O’Malley, McDonnell and their fellow governors, especially those perceived to have national ambitions, performed competently – and were able to boost their political profiles in the bargain.

Yes, incompetence on a grand scale during disasters can be political suicide (see Hurricane Katrina). But it’s preposterous to suggest that O’Malley’s “Meet the Press” appearance in Irene’s wake registered with many viewers as part of the early 2016 jockeying. It’s pretty likely that O’Malley and his advisers weren’t even thinking that.

But consider the sources. In its few years on the scene, Politico if nothing else has excelled at making mountains out of molehills. And the Post has a long history of touting local governors – especially on the south side of the Potomac – for national office.

Virginia may have been the birthplace of presidents back when they were named Washington, Jefferson and Madison. Yet over the past quarter century or so, the Post has brought us speculative stories about President Chuck Robb, President Doug Wilder, President George Allen, President Mark Warner, Vice President Tim Kaine, and now, President McDonnell. It never really touted Jim Gilmore for president, but he heard the call anyway.

How’d that work out? Wilder’s 1992 presidential campaign lasted for about six minutes. Gilmore’s 2008 White House campaign lasted about as long. Warner took steps to run for president that year, but backed off. Allen would have run for president but for uttering a single, stupid word. And Kaine was a legitimate runner-up to Joe Biden in the 2008 vice presidential sweepstakes.

Under Virginia’s antiquated political system, governors can only serve for a single term. Even in this day and age, when relative novices like Obama can be swept into the White House, that’s not enough time to build presidential credentials.

What happened with many of these guys is that they wound up running for U.S. Senate. Robb, whose gubernatorial term ended in early 1986, was elected to the Senate in 1988. Allen, whose term ended in 1998, was elected to the Senate in 2000. Warner, whose term ended in 2006, was elected to the Senate in 2008 (defeating Gilmore). Kaine, whose term ended at the start of 2010, is running for Senate now.

Maybe McDonnell will wind up challenging Warner in 2014? McDonnell does seem to have some chance of becoming the Republican presidential nominee’s running mate next year – Virginia is going to be a major battleground in the White House election, and if putting McDonnell on the ticket gives the GOP any kind of advantage, it may be worth doing. Erstwhile Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney said as much during a recent visit to Virginia Beach (now that would be a balanced ticket – Romney, a one-term governor with slick, possibly dyed hair, and McDonnell, a three-quarter-term governor with blow-dried, possibly dyed hair).

Though it’s a pretty safe bet that O’Malley would like to be president some day, there are times when it seems as if the O’Malley for President chatter is being driven by one man: John Wagner, the Post’s lead political reporter in Maryland for the past seven years. That’s understandable. Wagner signed on to the Post from the Raleigh News and Observer at a time when North Carolina’s John Edwards was exploding on the national scene.

O’Malley and McDonnell might well wind up running for president in 2016. But it would be nice to see them put together national campaigns on their own timetable – not the media’s.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation

A Triple Play of Political Shame – An Indictment of the Ehrlich Campaign, Maryland’s Fumble on Gay Marriage, and the Prince George’s Ethical Saga

White Prince George's

A DREAM Denied?

Frack This!

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.