This week's tragedies test possible 2016 candidates

At times of crisis, people often look to their elected leaders for guidance and stability. The nation looks to the president to bring us together. States look to their governors to provide information. Cities look to their mayors to help them pick up the pieces. So while it is difficult to think about at a time of tragedy, it is an unavoidable truth that politicians - and especially ones with big ambitions - are judged by how they handle the biggest disasters.

Two governors who are mentioned as possible 2016 candidates are now faced with their crisis moments. In Boston, Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Mass., is coping with the first terrorist bombing on American soil since 9/11. In the city of West, Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, is dealing with a horrific explosion at a fertilizer plant that has caused widespread damage.

The script in the immediate aftermath is familiar: press conferences with updated information on the investigation and recovery, visits with those who have been wounded, and comforting words at prayer vigils and memorials. In the weeks and months that follow, elected leaders are tested by their ability to rebuild their communities and states. Are displaced or wounded citizens getting the help they need? Do residents believe enough is being done to prevent the same thing from happening again? Are the physical scars of the tragedy cleaned up so that people can get back to their daily lives?

We saw this play out last October when Hurricane Sandy decimated parts of New Jersey. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, in his trademark fleece, was ubiquitous on TV screens at press conferences and tours of the damage. His embrace of President Obama and pleas for federal help earned him the ire of conservatives but respect from New Jersey voters.

Christie is facing a reelection campaign this fall. Less than a month after Hurricane Sandy hit, a Quinnipiac University poll found 67 percent of New Jersey voters said he deserved a second term. Several top-tier Democrats decided against challenging him in the race. And his numbers have remained high. Another Quinnipiac poll from March showed Christie leading his likely Democratic opponent, State Sen. Barbara Buono, 60 to 25 percent. And this in a state that President Obama carried by 17 points in 2012.

Crisis moments are one reason why the national parties often prefer giving their presidential nominations to governors. Governors are executives. They have to manage large bureaucracies. They have to work with their state legislatures. And they have to deal with the unexpected. Just ask Govs. Patrick and Perry.

Here's what else the 2016 contenders have been up to this week:

Joe Biden: The vice president had the dubious distinction of presiding over the Senate Wednesday as it voted down legislation that would have strengthened gun control laws. Despite intense lobbying by Biden, President Obama, and victims of gun violence, the best chance for a compromise measure on increasing background checks for gun purchasers was defeated 54-46. Three potential 2016 candidates, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., all voted against the amendment. Biden is scheduled to speak Saturday at the Michigan Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

Hillary Clinton: Wednesday night in New York, the former secretary of state delivered the keynote address at the 25th anniversary gala of the Global Fund for Women. It was Clinton's third speech to a group that addresses women's rights in recent weeks.

Andrew Cuomo: On Tuesday the New York Democratic governor unveiled a proposal aimed at targeting public corruption, after a series of scandals and arrests rocked the state capital in recent weeks. The centerpiece of Cuomo's plan is a new independent enforcement unit to root out campaign fraud.

Martin O'Malley: The Maryland Democratic governor was a sponsor this week of a D..C fundraiser for South Carolina congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch. Other possible 2016 contenders Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also lent their names to the event. On Saturday, O'Malley departs on an eight-day trip to Israel and Jordan.

Elizabeth Warren: The freshman Massachusetts Democrat gave her maiden speech on the Senate floor Wednesday. She paid tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Marco Rubio: As the Senate "gang of eight" formally unveiled its proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, the Florida Republican took the airwaves to sell the plan to skeptical conservatives. On the heels of his seven Sunday show appearances, Rubio did numerous talk radio interviews to explain the legislation. He's already beating back misinformation about the bill, including rumors that it would give illegal immigrants free cell phones.

Chris Christie: On Monday - tax day - the New Jersey GOP governor announced a new tax proposal. The centerpiece of Christie's plan is a middle class tax cut designed to mitigate the property tax burden on New Jersey residents. Under the proposal, homeowners with less than $400,000 in income would receive a tax credit equal to 10 percent of their property taxes. The plan is similar to one Christie proposed last year.

Rick Santorum: The former Republican presidential candidate canceled a planned appearance in Iowa due to a stomach illness.

Scott Walker and Bob McDonnell: The Wisconsin and Virginia GOP governors were in China this week on a trade mission. Also with them? Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad.

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    Caroline Horn is CBS News' senior producer for politics.