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Close Gubernatorial Races Feel Bush-Kerry Rivalry

Presidential politics and economic turmoil will have a major impact on the 11 gubernatorial races this fall, with the interplay between national and state politics most critical in four states where the 2000 race was dramatically close — Missouri, New Hampshire, Washington and West Virginia.

Tuesday's primary, the first this year for a gubernatorial race, puts President Bush's former budget director into the running in Indiana.

Mitch Daniels is relying on the president's term of affection — "My Man Mitch" — as his slogan for the GOP nomination. He's up against Eric Miller, a lawyer active with conservative Christians.

The winner will face Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan (search), who gets his first test at the polls since he assumed the office in 2003 when former Gov. Frank O'Bannon (search) died of a stroke part way into a second term.

Overall, six Democratic governorships will go before voters — in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Washington and West Virginia. The other five posts are held by Republicans — in Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont.

Democrats, who haven't held a majority of governorships since 1994, are working in a difficult landscape. Governors in Washington state and West Virginia are retiring, and Missouri Gov. Bob Holden faces a strong primary challenge as well as a big GOP campaign.

For Republicans, now with a 28-22 majority nationwide, Utah's Olene Walker (search) faces GOP challengers and a Democrat whose father was governor. Montana's Judy Martz has chosen not to seek a second term, spurring a GOP primary.

Most incumbents — no matter the party — are struggling with an economy that hasn't yet produced the kind of growth needed after years of cuts.

"More than half the states have switched incumbents or incumbent parties in the last couple of elections. It's a reflection of a tough economy," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, head of the Democratic Governors Association. "This is a tough, tough time to be a governor."

Republicans, worried about how the economy could hurt Bush's re-election campaign, emphasize the latest job growth numbers. But they'll still use the weak-economy argument when they're challenging an incumbent.

"There is a strong case to be made that it is time for a change," particularly in Indiana, Missouri and Washington state, said Ohio Gov. Robert Taft (search), head of the Republican Governors Association.

Strategists both welcome and worry about the presidential impact on the races for governor.

There is worry that the gubernatorial races will be swamped by all the ads for the presidential race.There's also concern it may be tougher to get political contributions — and voters' attention — particularly in swing states.

"What that means is that both parties are going to do a full-court turnout press in those states, for both elections," said Ron Faucheux, an expert on campaigning who teaches politics at George Washington University.

Heavy turnout brings its own benefits and dangers, depending on whether there's a late October shift toward one party's presidential nominee or not, and whether the voters' mood crosses over from the national elections to state contests.

Money, as always, remains crucial. Governors are working hard for donations, and the parties are jumping in, too. The RGA vows to spend at least $15 million on this year's races; the DGA more than $10 million.