The ranks of Democratic governors are filled with ambitious politicians boasting records that would probably play well with primary voters in 2016.
But even as they eye a move from the statehouse to the White House, there's broad recognition among the chief executives that the next generation of Democrats may have to wait longer than four more years to take their place as President Barack Obama's heir.
Nowhere is The Hillary Factor felt more acutely, and painfully, than in the same elite club of policy innovators and budget balancers that vaulted her husband onto the national political scene in the 1980s.
Among the Democratic governors who descended on Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association winter meeting, the only difference of opinion when it came to Secretary Clinton was whether she would clear the 2016 field entirely or merely loom colossus-like over the race until, and upon entering, the campaign.
Or, as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper put it with a bit more brevity when asked about Clinton's impact on the campaign, "You should be asking Martin O'Malley."
O'Malley is the second-term Maryland governor who has been perhaps the most open about his 2016 ambitions, but whose prospects are largely out of his hands as long as Clinton looms on the horizon. Count New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Hickenlooper himself on that same roster of accomplished Democratic governors who are younger than the 65-year-old Clinton but could find themselves stuck in their state capitals for another decade-plus should she be elected president.
It's an unprecedented scenario, noted some of the governors: a first lady-turned-senator-turned-presidential candidate-turned Secretary of State with 100-percent name ID and deep popularity who would, oh yes, make history as the nation's first female president.
Even the most impressive health care delivery reforms and far-reaching gun control restrictions pale by comparison.
"It's just a very unique situation in which an extremely qualified candidate with a long history of public service who has been fully vetted is considering running for the presidency," noted Nixon, who easily won reelection last year to his second term in conservative-leaning Missouri. "She's entitled to her time of analysis. It does, I think, in many ways freeze the field until she more clearly states what she wants to do with the rest of her life."
Like many of the Democratic governors, Nixon has a longstanding relationship with Hillary and Bill Clinton dating to the Missourian's time as a state senator when Clinton was Arkansas governor and then running for president. Nixon served as his state's state attorney general during the Clinton administration.
He stopped just short of committing to a Clinton candidacy.
"I worked extremely well with her husband, I work well with her on a number of things, feel a deep commitment to them at a lot of levels and a deep respect for them," said Nixon. "I'd be very energetic about hitting the trail for [Clinton] if she decides to make that step forward."
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Clinton would rally the party. "Should she choose to run, she is somebody we could all get behind," said Beebe.
Shumlin, without fully denying his own ambitions, was blunt about what Clinton meant for the Democratic race.
"Let's be candid about this: So much depends on Hillary," he said. "If Hillary runs, you're going to see fewer candidates. If Hillary does not run, you're going to see more candidates."
As big as Clinton's shadow may be, it's not stopping other potential Democratic hopefuls from positioning themselves to make a White House run. That includes Vice President Joe Biden, who raised eyebrows over the inauguration weekend last month for showing up at the Iowa state ball and hosting a slew of early-state Democrats to his residence for a party.
It also includes O'Malley.
The Marylander held court over the weekend with a stream of supporters and reporters in a snack-filled suite at the J.W. Marriott, the winter home to the governor's conference, and is making the sort of hires and travels that indicate an interest in a campaign.
O'Malley, a Clinton supporter in 2008, praised the former Secretary of State and said she'd make a "great president" but suggested her entry into the race wouldn't effectively end the primary.
"I doubt it," he said. "I don't think anybody ever clears the field."
The Democratic primary may still be two years away from beginning in earnest, and would-be candidates are deploying their usual focused-on-my-current-job talking point, but the usual giveaways are unmistakable.
Just take South Carolina, an early primary state and the first contest where there's a significant population of black voters.
O'Malley is heading down for a state party issues conference in March and Biden is likely to headline the state's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner in May.
But then there are the Clintons.
The former president is trekking to Kiawah Island near Charleston in April to see old friends from the state and raise money for Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe.
"If she gets into the race it's going to be be difficult for other candidates to both raise money and get attention," said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, who keeps close ties to many senior Democrats and was a national chair for Obama in 2008. "People like me will stay on the sidelines."
But Hodges was sure to note that, for now, it makes sense for the O'Malleys and Cuomos of the world to still position themselves for a run - noting the example of then-Gov. Clinton and Cuomo's father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
"They need to look no further back than Bill Clinton getting in back in '92," said Hodges, pointing out that the Arkansan didn't wait on his better-known fellow governor, who ultimately decided against a run.
And, anyways, if Clinton does run the others can always gracefully step back.
"There's no harm in a candidate getting in and then at some point in the process deciding that the race doesn't look good and then getting out," Hodges observed.
There's also recent history: Clinton wasn't supposed to lose the nomination in 2008, either; that is, until a freshman senator from Illinois came along with a message of Hope and Change.
But then she's in an even stronger place today than she was then, coming off a stint as Obama's loyal Secretary of State and showing up in polls as the most popular political figure in America.
Even old intra-party foes have nothing but kind words for Clinton.
"She has done a terrific job and she is a formidable person," said California Gov. Jerry Brown, who criticized both Clintons when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1992.
Asked if she'd clear the field, Brown shot back "probably" before adding, in his inimitable fashion, that his "Ouija board is not operative in Washington."
Hickenlooper predicted Clinton "clears half of [the field] the least."
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said Clinton "would definitely have the inside track" but predicted there would still be a primary if she runs. He endorsed Obama in 2008.
But Kitzhaber illustrates the sort of capital Clinton has amassed inside the party. Now in his second go-round as governor, the Oregonian recalled then-First Lady Hillary Clinton coming to raise money for him when he first ran for governor in 1994.
And Kitzhaber met Bill Clinton when the former president was still Arkansas governor and Kitzhaber was president of the Oregon Senate.
Kitzhaber, a doctor who has made health care reform his signature, recalled the exact 1992 debate when Bill Clinton cited Oregon's health initiatives.
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