SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For an ambitious group of Republican governors, next year's elections could be a springboard to bigger things in 2016.
Just don't talk about the White House — yet.
The annual Republican Governors Association meeting this week included a bullish outlook for a party that will defend 22 seats in 2014.
Bashing Washington dysfunction at every turn, the governors offered up their can-do records — and themselves — as a model for a party looking to return to power.
As if to emphasize the point, George W. Bush swooped in for a surprise lunch, sharing stories from his time as Texas governor and as president. It was lost on no one that a member of their club was the last Republican to win the White House.
"He encouraged all of us and agrees, I believe, with us that the best breeding ground for presidents is the governors," said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, following a two-hour steakhouse lunch.
High-profile governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana cautioned the party against looking past the 2014 elections to the 2016 presidential race. But the jockeying for a White House bid was the quiet subtext.
A look at some of the Republican governors who could play significant roles next year and beyond:
NEW JERSEY GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE
No one generated more interest than Christie, who arrived in Arizona only two weeks after a sweeping re-election victory in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.
The new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie will raise money for fellow governors, encourage party activists and court financial donors in 2014.
The political map could be advantageous for Christie. The most competitive governors' races are expected to be in states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, places where any future Republican nominee would need to connect. And any vulnerable governor Christie helps could become a future ally.
Christie isn't exactly plotting pathways to 270 electoral votes — at least not publicly. GOP leaders, he said, "start thinking about 2016 at our own peril."