Hawaii voters pick their candidates for governor Saturday in a year that promises to test the Democrats' 40-year hold on political power like never before.

Former Maui Mayor Linda Lingle, who lost to Gov. Ben Cayetano by a mere 5,254 votes four years ago, is a virtual shoo-in for the Republican nomination.

The Democratic race is not as clear. With Cayetano barred from seeking a third straight term, three major candidates are vying for the nomination. They are trying to fill a void left when Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris — widely considered the party's best hope of defeating Lingle — withdrew from the race in May, saying he couldn't beat Lingle.

Hawaii has not had a Republican governor since 1962. But Lingle has raised about as much money as the three Democrats combined. Moreover, the Democrats are plagued by a string of corruption scandals and a downturn in state revenue, in part because of the Sept. 11 blow to tourism.

With Lingle running, the GOP is also hoping to take control of the state House for the first time in the 43 years since Hawaii gained statehood. The Democrats have a larger and probably insurmountable lead in the Senate.

From tiny, remote Niihau — where the ballots of 81 Native Hawaiian voters will be flown in and out by helicopter for the first time — to the southernmost tip of the United States on the Big Island, roughly 668,000 Hawaii citizens are registered to cast primary ballots.

On the Democratic side of the governor's race, recent polls show Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono running ahead of state Rep. Ed Case, a cousin of AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case, and D.G. "Andy'' Anderson, a former Republican legislator.

A Lingle-vs.-Hirono match would ensure the election of Hawaii's first woman governor.

But Hawaii, with America's most ethnically diverse population spread over seven islands, has a uniquely personal political style that makes accurate polling difficult. Candidates hop from island to island and join supporters in the traditional tactic of waving arms and campaign signs along busy streets.

Hirono has stressed her experience in government, boasting of "a record of accomplishment based on bringing labor, business and government to the table, in a collaborative results-oriented style.'' Nearly all the other candidates are calling for change.

"We must cut up government's credit cards, stop raiding special funds, hold the line on taxes and run government like a business,'' said Case, sounding themes similar to Lingle's.

Adding to the Democrats' troubles are questions over the future of 74-year-old Rep. Patsy Mink's congressional seat following her hospitalization last month for pneumonia. The hospitalization was kept secret for a week.

Although Mink is expected to win even if she cannot campaign, doubts are being raised privately by political leaders about how Democrats would fare if she could not serve and a special election had to be called.