For a snapshot of the future of American politics, look at the governors' races.

Voters in 36 states choose their top elected officials on Tuesday. The outcome will offer insight into the issues that people care about, and a glimpse of the battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential contest:

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— In the Great Lakes, both parties are fighting hard over governors' offices in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with an eye on swing voters for the next White House race.

— In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has overcome setbacks, and goes into Election Day ahead in the polls. He has embraced traditionally Democratic positions on the environment, minimum wage and more in the process.

— In the South and the West, a handful of governorships are on track to switch parties, with Democrats hoping to make gains in the fastest-growing parts of the country.

Democrats head into Election Day with high hopes. There are more Republican governors (28) than Democrats (22), but because of term limits and retirements, Republicans went into the election year defending eight open seats, and Democrats only one. This at a time of widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush administration.

Of those nine open seats, Democrats are well ahead in five of them — New York, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Colorado and Ohio — with competitive contests in the remaining four. Democrats are in range of unseating two sitting Republican governors, in Maryland and Minnesota, polls show. Additionally, in Alaska, GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski lost his party's primary, and now the general election is competitive.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, head of the Democratic Governors Association, acknowledged polls that showed Democrats picking up as many as seven seats or more, but kept his expectations to only the four seats needed to gain a majority.

"Right now, you don't want to be too cocky, but it looks like the wave has some permanence," he said. "I'm trying to be a little bit cautious."

Though governors never formally act as a group, strategists say a majority can help build party strength, turn out votes for presidential contests, and cultivate future national leaders. Their decisions shape domestic policy on health care, social issues and taxes, and often touch citizens more directly than Washington.

Republicans remain optimistic in a few states, with close contests to defeat incumbent Democrats in Oregon, Wisconsin and Michigan.

"It's unwise to place too much confidence in polls, particularly at this stage," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, head of the Republican Governors Association. "I think you'll see some movement, I think you'll see some surprises."

Spending is breaking records in many states, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent nationwide, and special interest and outside groups jumping in. Records have fallen in Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, among others. The RGA and DGA together have spent upward of $30 million.

Control of Congress is the top prize this year, in large part because many see it as a referendum on the Bush administration. Most gubernatorial campaigns, meanwhile, have turned on education, taxes, immigration and other state-specific domestic issues, with Democrats hoping to get an added boost from voters weary of GOP leadership on the federal level.

Some sitting and outgoing governors are already exploring presidential campaigns in 2008, including Richardson, Romney and term-limited Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner recently announced he would not pursue the Democratic nomination, after actively courting support.

Among the new crop, several potential candidates for higher office could emerge, depending on how well they fare in the next few years, including:

— New York's Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who has made a national name as an attorney general by forcing reforms on Wall Street and corporate America. He is virtually guaranteed to take the governor's office with a commanding lead that supporters hope will give him a mandate after 12 years of GOP rule.

— Massachusetts' Deval Patrick, a Democrat who holds a wide lead to take a governorship that, like New York, has long been in GOP hands. Patrick, a top federal civil rights prosecutor under President Clinton, would be the second elected black governor of any state.

— Florida's Charlie Crist, a Republican attorney general who was endorsed by popular but term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush. His ability to connect with voters has spurred some comparisons to President Clinton. After polling ahead for weeks, however, the most recent survey showed him in a close race with Democratic Rep. Jim Davis.

The outcome of these elections will also play a big part in redistricting, the drawing of political lines that sets the stage for who can win Congress. The state party with control over a governor's office and the entire legislature has near-total freedom to draw congressional districts as they see fit. Democrats could snare unified control in Colorado, Minnesota and more.

There's also a chance for a record number of women governors. The number could rise from the current eight women governors to a record 10 — if Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, survives a tough challenge, and newcomers win in Alaska (Republican Sarah Palin), and Nevada, (Democrat Dina Titus).

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