BOSTON -- Three weeks from midterm elections, Republicans speaking up for fiscal conservatism are making strong runs at governorships across the Northeast, where some of the nation's bluest states went big for President Barack Obama two years ago.
Democratic incumbents face tough fights in Massachusetts and New Hampshire against Republican challengers, and the GOP is making aggressive bids for open seats in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut.
Democrats say they'll prevail in a region where voters eager for solutions to economic woes will be turned off by the surge of tea party activists and extremists driving the GOP rightward. In states dependent on tourism for jobs, they've cast Republicans as too cozy with developers and polluters.
But Republicans are echoing tea party themes of fiscal responsibility, seeking to tap voter discontent over jobs, the sour economy and government spending. GOP gains in the region on Nov. 2 could bolster Republicans nationally, giving the party a stronger hand in congressional redistricting.
In Democratic-dominated Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick is struggling to win a second term against Republican Charles Baker and independent Tim Cahill, whose candidacy helps split the anti-Patrick vote and whose running mate recently bolted for the Baker campaign, sparking allegations of campaign sabotage from Cahill.
"I'm not one of these people who think all Democrats are bad -- I'll pick the better man, but this is the year of change, however cliched that sounds," said Jay Doole, 47, who runs a driving school in Lowell, Mass., and favors Baker. "Our current governor is a very nice person, but he's not getting us anywhere."
The state's last four governors before Patrick were Republicans. Massachusetts voters have opted for GOP governors as a hedge against perceived excesses by the Democratic-run state Legislature.
"They've elected lots of Republican governors in the past two decades, expressly to put a leash on free-spending legislatures," said Dante Scala, chairman of the University of New Hampshire political science department. "I think you are seeing that pattern develop across the region."
Northeast Republicans may be more moderate on social issues, but they're fiscally conservative. That's why the tea party furor over high taxes and out-of-control government spending strikes a chord, Scala said, even though many people don't think of the Northeast as tea party country.
"In some ways what the tea partiers say, at least in terms of fiscal matters, is old-fashioned religion to New Hampshire Republicans and conservative voters," Scala said.
Baker said it's no surprise Republicans are making a strong push in the Northeast. He said the sagging economy and voter concern with pocketbook issues play to the strengths of GOP candidates.
"You've got competitive races all over the country," he said. "This region is just reflecting what's going on nationally."
Democrats, meanwhile, say their best prospects for picking up seats are in Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut where GOP governors are departing.
"There's Republican fatigue in all three races," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "Voters are looking for something different."
Here's a look at the gubernatorial races at issue:
-- Maine. In a state known for moderate Republicans such as Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Maine's brash Paul LePage, a tea party favorite with a conservative fiscal agenda, breaks the mold.
The Waterville mayor told people he won't be afraid to tell President Obama to "go to hell." LePage also uttered a barnyard epithet at a news conference when asked about property tax breaks on his wife's homes in Florida and Maine.
His opponent, Democratic state Senate President Libby Mitchell, got a boost when former President Bill Clinton campaigned for her.
A recent poll found LePage and Mitchell about even, with the pair leading the five-way contest to succeed term-limited Democrat John Baldacci.
-- New Hampshire. Democratic Gov. John Lynch is seeking a fourth two-year term against Republican John Stephen. The two men have accused each other of misleading voters about taxes and spending. Lynch had a wide lead in a recent University of New Hampshire poll.
-- Rhode Island. Independent Lincoln Chafee and Democrat Frank Caprio are seen as front-runners with GOP candidate John Robitaille trailing. Chafee is well known as a former Republican U.S. senator who bolted the party in 1999.
-- Vermont. Democratic state Sen. Peter Shumlin and Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie have clashed over taxes and the future of the state's only nuclear power plant in a hard-fought race.
-- Connecticut. Democrat Dan Malloy, a former Stamford mayor, and Republican Tom Foley, a multimillionaire Greenwich businessman and former ambassador to Ireland, are dueling in a tight contest.
-- Pennsylvania. Polls in this swing state suggest Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett is ahead of Democrat Dan Onorato.
-- New York. Democrats expect Andrew Cuomo to beat Republican Carl Paladino, a Buffalo developer with a pugnacious side, in a race some have said is the nastiest they've seen in the state.