DENVER—Ask any politician to handicap the 2008 presidential campaign and you'll probably get the same answer: It's more than a year away, and a year is a lifetime in politics.
A cliche, to be sure. But also true.
Consider the case of Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado.
A few years back, he seemed destined to join the pack seeking the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He won a second term in a landslide. National Review magazine put him on the cover and called him "The Best Governor in America." Conservative columnists touted him for 2008.
Yet Owens, 55, isn't joining the herd of wannabes already trekking to Iowa or New Hampshire, the pivotal states that will kick off the Republican selection in about 17 months.
Now preparing to leave office because of term limits, Owens has no visible plans—and no visible future in national politics.
What caused his fall?
For one thing, Owens hurt his once-high standing among anti-tax, anti-spending conservatives. He'd risen to the governor's office and national fame by pushing the state's Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the toughest in the nation. It limited the growth of state spending to population growth plus inflation, and mandated that excess tax collections be refunded.
It worked for a while, but after several years, Owens had to deal with some unpopular consequences. Health-care costs soared faster than inflation and squeezed other priorities. Then a downturn starting in 2000 lowered revenues, triggering a "ratchet" provision that cut the state's spending cap. When the economy rebounded, spending had to start from the lower level.
Owens changed his mind. He backed a referendum last year suspending the ratchet provision for five years and letting the government spend $3.7 billion otherwise destined for tax refund checks. Colorado voters approved the measure by 52-48 percent.
His turnaround on budget policy illustrated how pragmatism sometimes trumps ideology when governing forces politicians to make unforeseen and difficult choices. It saved the state from potentially devastating budget cuts. But in so doing, Owens sacrificed a big part of his conservative base in Colorado and nationally.
Perhaps even worse in the eyes of his base, he worked with a newly Democratic legislature on other measures, such as one aimed at curbing illegal immigration.
"He was subject to the most vicious abuse I've ever seen," said Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic speaker of the Colorado House. "Each time he put public policy ahead of partisan politics, and each time he paid a price."
If life at the office crippled relations with one part of his base, life at home strained his once-solid support from social conservatives. In 2003, Owens' wife of 28 years threw him out. Neither gave an explanation. She stayed in Centennial, Colo., with their three children; he stayed alone in the six-bedroom governor's mansion.
The separation rocked Colorado politics.
Social conservatives angry about the separation challenged his leadership of the state delegation to the 2004 Republican National Convention. His think tank, once considered a vehicle for his bigger ambitions, went dormant.
Owens resisted pleas to run for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Republicans lost the U.S. seat, as well as both houses of the Colorado legislature. A Denver magazine named Frances Owens the most powerful person in Colorado for changing the course of the state's politics.
After 20 months apart, Owens moved back in May 2005.
His marital problem serves as a reminder that politicians, even those with grand ambitions, can be sidetracked by human frailties.
The Owenses might well save their marriage. And Bill Owens might well salvage his once-bright political future. But to those in Colorado, it's hard to see how.
"He was on the fast track," one Owens aide said. "Now what's he going to do?"
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)