Gov. Bob Holden (search) began his term with a $1 million inaugural bash so lavish that it became a public relations nightmare. Within weeks, everything seemed to be going wrong.

Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time in a half-century. The Legislature grew resistant. And much of Holden's campaign platform has been undermined by budget shortfalls.

Now, after three tough years in office, the Democrat is locked in one of the roughest gubernatorial re-election campaigns in the country. And because Missouri is a classic swing state, the outcome could have implications on the race between President Bush (search) and John Kerry (search).

"Missouri, I think, certainly will become the most closely watched governor's race in the country," said political scientist Robert Spitzer, who specializes in presidential politics at the State University of New York at Cortland.

Holden puts it even more bluntly: "I would say it's very important to Kerry's success that I be successful."

Missouri is perhaps the ultimate bellwether state, closely mirroring national demographics and picking the winning presidential candidate every time during the past century but once, in 1956. (Missouri voted for Adlai Stevenson over President Eisenhower.)

The state also tends to elect presidents and governors from the same party. Holden's narrow victory in 2000 was the first time in 32 years that Missouri voters split the top of the ticket.

Missouri is one of just 11 states with gubernatorial elections this year.

"If the race for governor is close and hotly contested, which surely it will be, it's more likely to bring voters out to the polls, and that could have an effect on the presidential race," Spitzer said.

Holden is being challenged in the August primary by state Auditor Claire McCaskill (search) and several others. If he wins that race, Holden will then probably face GOP Secretary of State Matt Blunt (search), the son of Rep. Roy Blunt, the third-ranking House Republican.

Some political observers already are predicting Holden will lose in November.

"I'm practicing 'Gov. Blunt,"' said George Connor, a political science professor at Southwest Missouri State University.

Connor said Missouri, which always has been socially conservative, is leaning more and more Republican -- evidenced best by the recent GOP takeover of the Statehouse.

"I just don't see this working out well for the Democrats," Connor said. "Just looking at statewide trends, I don't see Kerry winning Missouri, and I also don't see Gov. Holden staying in office."

Both McCaskill and Blunt are taking aim at Holden's leadership, suggesting he needlessly antagonizes the GOP-led Legislature and criticizing him for proposing tax increases to shore up a state budget that has rebounded on its own.

Holden also achieved a rare distinction last year when lawmakers overrode three of his vetoes -- matching in one year what had been the total number of vetoes overridden in Missouri since the Civil War.

A former prosecutor, McCaskill has brought an investigatory edge to the auditor's office, conducting not only accounting audits but a new brand of "performance audits" critiquing agencies within Holden's administration. McCaskill also brings a spontaneous approach to the campaign trail, frequently speaking without prepared remarks -- a contrast to Holden.

Polls released in February, just before Kerry easily won Missouri's presidential primary, showed an even race between Holden and McCaskill, with at least a third of voters undecided. No polls have been released since then.

One of the low points of Holden's term occurred his first winter, when he announced budget cuts just 18 days after the inauguration bash that put him in debt. The party included $15,000 worth of custom-made chocolate bars and a stage show emceed by actor Tony Randall.

Holden has been almost continually at odds with Republican lawmakers who have consistently rejected his call to raise spending through the elimination of corporate tax loopholes, and higher taxes on tobacco, casinos and the wealthy.

"My power has never been inside the Capitol," Holden said in an interview.

"I got elected by people out there who are farmers who care about their kids, housewives who care about their children's future, grandparents who are concerned about their grandkids' and children's future. That's where I think my power has always been, so I go back to it."