Election Day this year will set the course for job policy, health care reforms and school spending — not to mention taxes. And that's not just in the run for president. Eleven states will pick governors next month, and the contests allow domestic issues to get some attention as money pours into the campaigns and the races heat up.
Experts see particularly hot contests in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and Washington state.
Democrats are defending six seats and Republicans five. Two incumbents have already lost — bounced by their own parties during primaries. Three chose not to run — after bruising terms in Montana and Washington, and revelations of an extramarital affair in West Virginia.
"I don't know where to start to say how important these races are," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (search), chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (search), which expects to spend up to $8 million on the contests. "What happens in states becomes ultimately the model for what happens on the federal level."
Campaign strategists and party officials see these as the top races:
— Missouri: Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill is vying with GOP Secretary of State Matt Blunt, son of four-term GOP Rep. Roy Blunt (search) of Missouri. Democrats in the critical presidential swing state dumped incumbent Gov. Bob Holden (search) after one term.
— Indiana: Former White House budget director Mitch Daniels (search) — dubbed "My Man, Mitch" by President Bush — challenges Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan (search), who gets his first test at the polls since he took office after former Gov. Frank O'Bannon (search) died last year.
— Montana: Possibly the Democrats' best chance to take a longtime GOP seat. Democratic farmer Brian Schweitzer is up against Bob Brown, the Republican secretary of state. First-term GOP Gov. Judy Martz (search) chose not to seek re-election.
— Washington: Another swing state. Republican Dino Rossi, a longtime legislative leader, challenges Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire for a seat left open when Gov. Gary Locke chose not to seek a third term.
— New Hampshire: Polls show GOP Gov. Craig Benson even or trailing Democrat John Lynch.
Other races are in Delaware, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. Currently, Republicans control 28 governorships and Democrats 22.
The contests have created sparks, though national attention has been muffled by the focus on the presidential campaign. In a year when the Iraq war has dominated headlines, gubernatorial races have provided at least a partial arena for lengthier debate about domestic issues.
"Missourians are hungry for someone to talk about kitchen-table concerns, health care and tuition," said McCaskill. Voters, while concerned with foreign policy, are looking to their governors to make changes that will improve their day-to-day lives.
In Delaware, a prison union has taken out billboards chastising Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who, after a female guard was raped by an inmate, said that "in prisons, you almost expect this to happen." Her spokesman said she was trying to stress that prisons were dangerous environments.
Candidates in New Hampshire and Indiana are promising tax cuts. Transportation is up for debate in Washington state, where traffic gridlock has long been a thorny problem. And incumbents and hopefuls everywhere are debating education and how best to improve the economy after four years when states dealt with a lot of red ink.
Meanwhile, there has been no shortage of dirty politicking charges.
The Republican Governors Association was fined nearly $200,000 in North Carolina for running a TV ad that broke state law because it relied on corporate contributions. In Montana, Democratic candidate Schweitzer is complaining about RGA ads accusing him of hiding his business dealings from voters.
The New Hampshire attorney general's office on Friday barred the RGA from conducting any political activity in the state until it registers as a political committee. New Hampshire Democrats had complained about ads featuring polls critical of John Lynch, the Democratic challenger of Gov. Craig Benson.
Outside groups have even drawn fire from candidates they aim to help.
Brown, the Republican in Montana, called for the end to all outside meddling after Democrats criticized an RGA-funded poll that, among its questions, raised negative allegations about Schweitzer like those in the ad campaign.
A spokesman for North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, made a similar plea after Republicans complained about ads critical of GOP challenger Patrick Ballantine run by a separate group set up by mostly Southern Democratic governors called the State Capitol Media Project.
While the governors' groups are spending millions of dollars on the races, the outlay is comparable to last year, when fewer governors were up for election.
The RGA is on target to surpass the $15.5 million it spent for four races in 2003, including California's recall. But the Democrats' group expects to spend only up to $8 million, less than the $8.7 million it invested in campaigns last year.
"This is our opportunity to pick up some seats," said Ohio Gov. Robert Taft, the RGA chairman, who said the GOP could break a 30-seat majority this election. Governors help drive national policy, and the office serves as a training grounds for future senators and presidents, he said. "And from that standpoint, we believe it's important to have Republicans as governors."
In states where the presidential campaign is hard-fought, it's been more difficult to catch the public's attention. But the national focus also has benefits, as it drives more resources to the state to help with registering and turning out voters.
And in many of these races, candidates acknowledge that a late-October swing of support for their party's presidential nominee could translate into votes for them. Every vote for him, New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson said, can help the president — and vice versa.