Call them what you will: political gaffes, cases of foot-in-mouth disease, strategic stumbles. A handful of gubernatorial candidates have seen this election campaign get a lot rougher and they only have themselves to blame.

There was an off-color comment about lesbians, a series of letters seeking jobs for relatives, a dismissive comment about Sept. 11 that drew an apology. And there's still a month to go before Election Day.

"People have whole careers where they've accomplished great and important things, and one verbal gaffe can do more [damage] than 20 years of hard work and accomplishment,'' said Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant working on the Michigan governor's race and several Senate campaigns.

Whether any of the foul-ups prove politically fatal remains to be seen, but the embarrassments keep cropping up every few days.

—In Kansas, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius said she was more scared driving Missouri's highways than by the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The roads in Missouri were much more terrifying to me than the attacks on the World Trade Center, because I really did think my life was far more at risk,'' she said at a forum of candidates for governor.

—In Florida, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush — not realizing a reporter was present — told a group of lawmakers he had "juicy details'' about the sexual orientation of two women who care for a missing Miami girl.

"Bet you don't get that in Pensacola,'' Bush said. Florida police said the women are lesbians; a lawyer for one said they're not.

—In New York, Democrat H. Carl McCall revealed he had written dozens of letters on state stationery pitching relatives or friends for jobs, often telling the companies how much of their stock was held by state pensions he oversaw as state comptroller.

Sebelius apologized for her "insensitive'' remark, Bush said he "didn't mean any disrespect,'' and McCall said he hadn't done anything wrong but apologized for giving the impression that he "sought to leverage my public position.''

While every election brings allegations of bad decisions, wrongheaded policy, and sellouts to special interests, the pain isn't always self-inflicted.

Some of these goofs are likely to be brought back to voters by candidates' rivals.

Florida Democrat Bill McBride's campaign was mulling ads to revisit another Bush comment at the same meeting of lawmakers: Bush told them he had a "devious plan'' to circumvent a pending voter initiative to cap classroom size.

The Florida governor, who opposes the initiative, said later he was just being sarcastic.

None of these recent stumbles has yet ballooned into a race-destroying brouhaha, though New York may have seen the worst gaffe yet.

Last spring, Andrew Cuomo — then running for the Democratic nomination for governor — said GOP Gov. George Pataki didn't lead after Sept. 11, but just stood behind then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and "held the leader's coat.''

Cuomo was widely criticized for the comment, failed to gain in the polls and dropped out of the race a week before the Democratic primary.

Whether a blooper is damaging or forgettable depends on its subject matter and its timing, political pollsters and consultants said. Challengers usually suffer more because voters don't know them well.

And apologies can help.

"`Oops' works when you get a fact wrong or you say something off the cuff,'' said Ray Allen, a GOP consultant working on governors' races in Alabama and Georgia. The exceptions are ethnic slurs, serious ethical lapses, or, this year, Sept. 11, he said.

Still, voters are usually forgiving, he and others said.

"There are hundreds of congressmen who can't give a good speech, and thousands of state legislators who lost every debate they were ever in,'' Allen said. "Most people don't care about that. Gaffes are only human.''