STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - As the nation's governors gathered Saturday to discuss America's role in the global economy, a matter of raw ambition topped their hidden agenda: the vice presidency.
Nearly every state executive, Republican and Democrat alike, sees the White House in his or her future. A handful actually has a chance; Al Gore and George W. Bush are scanning statehouses for running mates.
''If there are 50 governors in attendance, there will 50 potential vice presidential candidates,'' joked Virginia Gov. James Gilmore as the National Governors' Association opened its summer meeting, a four-day blend of politics and policy.
He should know. Gilmore is one of several GOP state executives thought to have an outside chance of landing a spot on the Bush ticket, mentioned with the likes of Michigan's John Engler, Marc Racicot of Montana, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Christie Whitman of New Jersey.
Republican officials say Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Frank Keating of Oklahoma are top-tier candidates, though each would present Bush a political problem. George Pataki of New York, a traditionally Democratic state, is also under consideration, senior GOP officials say.
Ridge, awarded the Bronze Star in Vietnam, would help Bush carry this critical swing state. Oklahoma is expected to go Republican with or without Keating, but the governor is Catholic, telegenic, opposed to abortion and a former crime fighter - all attractive traits to Bush.
Vice President Gore has just 18 Democratic governors from which to choose, compared to 30 on the Republican side.
California Gov. Gray Davis is a top contender to be Gore's running mate, according to Democrats familiar with the vice president's thinking. He would reinforce an image of seriousness and readiness that Gore is trying to project, and could raise millions of dollars for the party, sources say.
Party operatives also mention Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Gary Locke of Washington State.
But sources familiar with the deliberations say Shaheen may be the only Democratic governor other than Davis with a serious shot. Her stature would skyrocket if Bush had a woman nominated at his convention, which begins July 31 in Philadelphia.
Gore's convention in Los Angeles opens two weeks after the GOP gathering. Leading Democrats are urging the vice president to announce his selection a day or so after the GOP convention closes, saying the tactic would rob Bush of some of the traditional post-convention ''bounce'' in public polls.
Republican Gov. Ed Schafer of North Dakota said Bush has told him he wants a running mate who could ''run the whole ball of wax'' if something happened to the president. ''If that's the case, a governor is the best pick because we're leaders of the executive branch,'' Schafer said. ''While congressmen are policy-makers, we're policy-deliverers.''
Bush, a two-term Texas governor with no legislative experience, may opt instead for a running mate who fills a void on his resume. Several lawmakers are said to be under consideration, including:
- Sens. Fred Thompson and Bill Frist of Tennessee, who could give Gore fits in his home state.
- Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam War veteran and an ally of former Bush primary rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
-Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, the budget expert who waged a colorful but brief challenge to Bush and has been busy campaigning for the Texan.
-Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, though conservatives have questioned his tax record.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida is under serious consideration because polls show that Bush's brother, Jeb, who is governor, has not sewn up the state for Republicans.
Gore believes that putting Graham on the ticket could help him win the state's 25 electoral votes - dealing Bush a major blow - or at least force the Texan to spend more money than he planned in Florida, sources say.
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana would help Gore in the Midwest and is thought by Gore to be an attractive prospect, sources say. Women's groups, however, have questioned his commitment to abortion rights.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt could help mend Gore's rift with labor, but has said he is committed to winning back the House and becoming speaker. Still, senior Democrats don't rule out the possibility that the lawmaker from Missouri, a battleground state, could find his way to the ticket.
Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Dianne Feinstein of California are also under consideration. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell is a top-tier prospect, and Gore aides outside the search process are still touting former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
Vanquished primary rival Bill Bradley won't get a spot on the ticket, sources close to Gore say.
Warren Christopher, head of Gore's search team, has asked Democrats about Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and Fannie Mae chairman Franklin Raines, both of whom are black.
Among the GOP governors, Keating's shoot-from-the-lip reputation could be a problem. He angered some Bush aides during the GOP primaries for comments attributed to him that seemed less than loyal.
At the governors meeting, Keating was in a light-hearted mood as he dropped in for only a few hours on Saturday to meet privately with his GOP peers. ''The only person more surprised than I by the Frank Keating boomlet is George W. Bush,'' he joked.
Ridge is opposed by powerful anti-abortion forces. Bush's allies in the religious conservative community say the party's right wing could stomach Ridge's abortion-rights views to win the White House.
Ahead in polls, Bush might not want to take the risk.