Until recently, Governors had the best jobs in America. In the 1990s they cut taxes and built schools with capital gains from the booming economy. Where Congress floundered, Governors led--from welfare reform to health care. They claimed credit for falling crime rates. And they set up rainy-day funds with leftover tax revenue, if you can imagine such a thing. In 1997, Iowa's Governor said his biggest problem was finding skilled people to fill all the open jobs.
But in this century the Governor's mansion is a cold and lonely place. Reeling from the biggest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, Governors, unlike Presidents, must show discipline. By law, they have to balance their budgets in all but one state (Vermont). And they face soaring Medicaid obligations, No Child Left Behind mandates and new homeland-security costs. It's no wonder our picks include a man who lost 110 lbs. and then chivied voters to do the same.
Today what makes Governors great is not the loft of their dreams but the depths of their pragmatism. To find leaders who can reckon with reality, TIME consulted academics, political analysts and former Governors. Our top performers include Janet Napolitano, who transcended petty partisanship in Arizona, and Mark Warner, a millionaire with the audacity to raise taxes in Virginia.
When it comes to raw political talent, there's not a Bill Clinton in this group. But these are the rainy days. And charisma doesn't keep you dry. A roof does. Meet the hardest-working carpenters of 2005.