Why Abbott's wait-and-see approach to 2024 may relegate him to the national GOP sidelines

AUSTIN, Texas — If Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is planning to run for president in 2024, he'd probably be running already.

At least behind the scenes.

Texas governors, by virtue of the national profile they achieve as the leader of the second-largest state and because Texas can be counted on to make both good and bad national news on any given day of the year, are pretty much always in the mix whenever the discussion turns to presidential politics. And it's no different for Abbott, a Republican who this month began his third term as governor and who has an unbroken winning streak in statewide elections that dates to the 1990s.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott revels in a re-election victory over Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke during an election watch party in McAllen, Texas on November 8, 2022.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott revels in a re-election victory over Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke during an election watch party in McAllen, Texas on November 8, 2022.

But even though Abbott's top political aides, and perhaps even the governor himself, acknowledge having at least a glint of interest, there's little evidence on the surface that anyone in the inner circle is putting a laser focus on the groundwork needed to launch a national campaign capable of locking down a major party's nomination for the presidency.

Here's what Abbott's chief political strategist, Dave Carney, told reporters about a potential presidential run on the eve of Abbott's third gubernatorial inauguration:

“What he’s always said is, when the (legislative) session is over, he will take a look at the situation and see if there’s a need for his voice, his experience, to get into the fray,” Carney said. “But until then, we’re not going to New Hampshire or Iowa or South Carolina."

A logical comeback would be that those early primaries are still a year away, so what's the big hurry?

A logical comeback to that is that when the last Texas governor to actually win the White House was in Abbott's shoes, time-frame-wise, he and his political team were already doing every possible thing to send the message to GOP donors, party leaders, party foot soldiers and reporters with a national platform that if they wanted to get behind a winner, they need look no further than to the biggest dog in Austin, Texas.

It was winter 1999, and then-Gov. George W. Bush was telling his team he was ready to launch his 2000 campaign. And just as important, that team had already been preparing for that launch for about a year or more. The proving ground was the governor's campaign for reelection in 1998 that was so well organized and polished that Bush vacuumed up 69% of the vote at a time when Texas Democrats were still considered competitive.

That race became the de facto first Republican primary of the 2000 election cycle.

Bush & Co. were leaving nothing to chance, even though they enjoyed all of the advantages Abbott lacks ahead of 2024. America was quite familiar with his name, given it had already elected one George Bush president. Abbott has national name ID, but it's not in the same league.

Bush had a driven, dedicated and loyal cadre of lieutenants whom, it could be argued, no GOP presidential candidate since has been able to match.

And, perhaps most important, there was no other logical GOP front-runner in 2000. In Gallup poll after Gallup poll in 1999 and early 2000, Bush led the Republican field until all the other challengers shriveled and collapsed.

By contrast, any Republican in winter 2023 with an eye on 2024 approaches the starting line well behind former President Donald Trump. Even though he's been dinged up quite a bit since his 2020 loss, Trump's shadow remains long and large. Even if he should stumble, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis so far is positioned as heir apparent among the chattering class.

To be fair, Abbott has not been twiddling his thumbs — whether he plans to run for president or not. He's probably Democratic President Joe Biden's loudest critic outside of Washington, and his appearances on Republican-friendly Fox News hammering the administration's immigration policies play quite well with his party's base.

In his pre-inaugural chat with reporters, Carney said that any decision on 2024 will follow "a very thoughtful approach" and would not be made because Abbott is "blindly ambitious to run."

There are any number of character traits common to people who have become president and people who have tried to become president. Ambition, blind or otherwise, tends to be pretty close to the top of the list.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: If Abbott wants to be president, he's not following George W. Bush playbook