Three dozen contests for governor next fall promise to shake up the nation's political map, with Republicans fighting to hold on to several critical states and the results offering clues to the bigger prize ahead — the White House in 2008.
Governors gather in Washington this weekend for four days of talks among themselves and with President Bush, but their own re-election campaigns will underscore the meeting of the National Governors Association. Sessions with fundraisers, pollsters and political strategies begin and end most days.
Democrats are in good position to gain states, at least on paper. Republicans need to defend more of the 36 executive mansions up for grabs — 22 to just 14 held by the Democrats. Tough contests already are shaping up in big-population states including California, New York, Florida and Ohio, all now held by the GOP.
Open seats provide the best opportunity for a party switch and Democrats have only one to defend, while term limits or retirements mean Republicans are leaving eight seats open (New York, Florida and Ohio are amomg them).
Democrats see reason for hope in Bush's weak poll numbers, and in the administration's difficulty explaining its policies in Iraq and response to Hurricane Katrina. The latest political storm, over security at U.S. ports, just adds to their optimism.
"What's different is voters getting tired of ineffective Republican policies, huge deficits, credibility, Katrina," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, head of the Democratic Governors Association. "Competence. I think the competence issue is our strongest suit."
While debates always rage over how much national politics affect gubernatorial races, there's no question that governors have an impact on national politics. Four of the last five presidents had previous experience running a state, and governors can help presidential campaigns by marshaling big organizations and getting out the vote.
"Having more Republican governors means more Republican congressmen, senators and better support for the presidency," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, head of the Republican Governors Association.
Republicans currently hold a 28-22 majority, and have held more than half the states since a wave of GOP wins in the 1994 elections ended nearly a quarter-century of Democrat dominance. Republicans also took control of Congress that year.
But even Romney — who chose not to seek re-election in his heavily Democratic state and is exploring a run for the presidency — acknowledges the tough odds this time around.
"All incumbents have better chances. That's what makes our map discouraging — not discouraging, it makes it a disadvantage," he said.
Campaigns are already in gear with tens of millions of dollars being raised, TV ads running, and consultants and pollsters hired from Michigan to Texas, with the first primaries next month in Illinois and Texas and the big push coming in spring. Among the more closely watched states:
— Ohio: Critical in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, GOP Gov. Bob Taft leaves with rock-bottom popularity and a guilty plea to ethics violations.
— Michigan: Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose victory in 2002 ended 12 years of GOP rule, has seen her state's economy continue to suffer and has drawn a challenge from deep-pocketed Dick Devos, the son of a co-founder of Amway Corp.
— Florida: Another critical presidential state and an open seat, with Jeb Bush term-limited. Both parties are in the midst of vigorous primary contests.
Elsewhere, Democrats are looking to win back New York, where George Pataki is retiring after 12 years. In California, Democrats saw new hope after Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger badly lost a series of ballot initiatives last November aimed at giving him more spending authority and cutting the power of public employee unions.
Republicans are looking to harvest some victories and hold onto their majority. Romney said the GOP was hoping to take back ground in the Midwest that was lost in 2002 — not just Michigan but also Illinois and Wisconsin.
Across the country, newcomers and seasoned politicians alike are jumping in. There is a chance for the first black governor since L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia left office in 1994, with black candidates running strong in Massachusetts (Democrat Deval Patrick, who served in the Clinton administration), Ohio (Republican Ken Blackwell, the secretary of state) and Pennsylvania (Republican Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and NFL Hall of Famer.)
Overall, Democrats are in high spirits. Richardson, who is seen as a possible presidential candidate, predicts Democratic governors will dominate Election Day and walk away with "26 or 27 governorships in Democratic hands."
Still, four years ago Democrats had the numbers in their favor in similar ways, with many GOP governors who won in 1994 term-limited from running again. Democrats failed to capitalize, and Republicans held onto their edge in the states.