WASHINGTON (AP) — As they begin to shape their prospective bids for president, ambitious Republican governors are eager to seize on voters' contempt for that most dirty of political words: "Washington."
"Americans have become cynical that Washington can ever change," former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday in the midst of a four-day Washington swing. "I am kind of skeptical that an agent of change can come from Washington, to tell you the truth."
Yet those same governors, even as they profess to loathe the nation's capital, have become regular visitors. They come to woo veteran policy advisers, experienced operatives and savvy donors who would serve as the backbone of their nascent White House campaigns. At least four potential candidates — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Perry — have been in town in the past week alone.
"If you want to participate at the federal level, you have to be here in Washington," said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of libertarian-leaning lobbying group FreedomWorks.
Pence's visit started this week with a closed-door fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association and private meetings with former colleagues in Congress. He then went on to jab Washington while testifying before a House committee.
"I would say, with the deepest respect to my former colleagues, that I am persuaded, having spent 12 years in Congress and two years as a governor, that the cure for what ails this country will come as much from our nation's state capitals as it ever will from our nation's capital," Pence told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Pence was more aggressive in a brief interview, charging that Washington leaders seem "incapable of solving" major problems.
Pete Seat, an Indiana-based Republican strategist who worked in President George W. Bush's White House, said "there's an appetite out there for a contrast between Washington and the states."
It's an idea that has existed for some time, and a message that previous candidates — even those with day jobs in Washington — have used before.
Barack Obama, then a first-term senator, won in 2008 with a promise to change the nation's politics. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won in 2000 by promising to bring heartland values to Washington and turn the page on the scandals of Bill Clinton's presidency. Then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton won his 1992 campaign with his pledge, "It's time to change America."
Walker is little different. His campaign-in-waiting is called "Our American Revival," and its message to voters and donors begins, "government closest to the people is the most responsive and accountable to the people," and scorns "federal overreach" that "infringes on our American freedoms and values."
Yet Washington is where Walker was last week, spending Saturday night at the annual dinner of the exceptionally exclusive Alfalfa Club, an invitation-only affair for Washington's most well-connected. His trip largely amounted to three days of job interviews — both with those he is seeking to hire, as well as for himself before deep-pocketed donors.
Case in point: Walker's political action committee in recent days has hired the Republican National Committee's press secretary, Washington-area polling firm the Tarrance Group and former RNC political director Rick Wiley.
"As much as I like coming here, I love going home even more," Walker said during a recent speech delivered just a block from the White House.
Perry arrived in Washington on Tuesday night and leaves Friday morning, although with only one public event on his schedule: the keynote address at the annual gala of the conservative think tank American Principles Project. The rest of the time was largely devoted to private meetings with political operatives.
In addition to bashing Washington, Perry also challenged his party to move beyond simply opposing Democrats.
"A congressional majority is a terrible thing to waste," Perry said and later added, "As we look at 2016, we've got to remember we are not electing a critic-in-chief, we are electing a commander-in-chief."
Perry on Thursday named more than 80 major donors to his political action committee's advisory board, a significant show of strength in the midst of his Washington swing. The group includes some of the biggest donors in Republican politics, a group spread across the country, but with extensive ties in the nation's capital.
Speaking at Washington's Mayflower Hotel earlier in the day, Jindal charged that Washington has expanded federal programs and that lawmakers from both parties have shifted power to Washington at the expense of states.
Railing against "government elites," the Louisiana governor pointedly criticized Common Core education standards, adopted voluntarily by many states and loathed by most conservatives.
"I have more faith in the moms than I do in any collection of bureaucrats," Jindal said, overstating Washington's role in the standards. "They think they know better than you. They think you're not smart enough to educate your children."