About half of this year's 11 governors races look fiercely competitive heading into their final hours, with record-breaking amounts of money on hand for the campaigns and harsh attacks and counterattacks by the candidates.
None of the races involve the nation's 10 most-populous states, but an executive mansion is still a valuable political prize and four of the top races — in Indiana, Missouri, Utah and Washington — have easily broken state records for money raised and spent. Montana saw an unprecedented infusion of out-of-state contributions.
New Hampshire is the only one among the top races that didn't see a record fall, even though it involves a contest between two millionaires. One-term GOP Gov. Craig Benson (search) set a record two years ago when he spent a stunning $12 million in his winning bid. Now he's in a tight race with Democrat John Lynch.
All candidates have to spend a lot "especially with the noise level in these final days," said Ed Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan group based in Montana. "They have to make a lot of noise ... in order to get noticed, especially in the (presidential) battleground states."
Records have fallen in:
— Missouri: Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill (search) raised $11 million so far. GOP Secretary of State Matt Blunt, son of four-term GOP Rep. Roy Blunt (search) of Missouri, raised $7.2 million. Incumbent Gov. Bob Holden, defeated in the primary, spent $7.2 million. The record was $19 million spent in 2000.
— Washington state: Republican Dino Rossi (search), a longtime legislative leader and Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire together spent more than $11.3 million, far more than the record $8.9 million in 1996.
Democratic Gov. Gary Locke (search) chose not to seek a third term.
— Utah: Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. (search), dean of the University of Utah law school and the son of a former governor, spent $1.6 million while GOP businessman Jon Huntsman Jr. (search), spent $3.2 million, topping the nearly $2-million record in 2000. GOP Gov. Olene Walker did not win her party's nomination.
Montana also has a close, if not quite so expensive contest, between Democrat Brian Schweitzer and Republican Bob Brown.
Other states choosing governors next week are Delaware, North Carolina, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.
Accusations and negative ads have mounted as the contests have gotten closer.
In Missouri, McCaskill, 51, questioned if 33-year-old Blunt had the experience for the job. In Montana, Republicans cast doubt on Democrat Schweitzer's business record. In Indiana, Kernan questioned Daniels' understanding of health care problems, bringing up his past work as an executive for a drug manufacturer.
Delaware's Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was blasted by opponents for several problems, including sex harassment allegations against police, discrimination cases settled by the state, and Minner's own comments after the rape of a prison guard by an inmate. She said that "in prisons, you almost expect this to happen."
"Delaware seems to be coming apart at the seams," said GOP candidate Bill Lee.
The candidates' supporters have fought over tactics and rules, too. The Republican Governors Association ran into trouble in several states. The RGA was fined in North Carolina, chastised in New Hampshire and ordered by a Vermont judge to pull its ads in the campaign's last days.
Both of the major parties' governors groups — trying to expand their control across the states — are pouring money into the competitive races. The Democratic Governors Association expects to spend up to $8 million this year, while the RGA expects to spend up to $12 million, leaders said.
That money "is going to make a difference," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the DGA chairman. "We're very, very competitive in a number of races that nobody expected us to be — New Hampshire, Montana and Utah."
Republicans now control 28 governorships, and Democrats 22. If Democrats won every competitive race, they could strike a 25-25 balance. Republicans, if they swept the close races, could extend their reach to 31 governorships.
A bigger contingent of GOP governors, said Ed Tobin, the RGA's executive director, will translate into smaller government, less taxes and a stronger team to help President Bush, assuming he wins re-election. "It gives him a ground game to implement his policies," Tobin said.
Vilsack said governors can help shape the domestic solutions to job growth and health care. "And come 2008, when John Kerry's running for re-election," he said, "you're going to have Democratic governors that are innovators that lead the national agenda."