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Gubernatorial Races: States of Uncertainty

By Richard S. Dunham Democrats have reason to be pleased with their sweep of the two gubernatorial contests of 2001. Entrepreneur-turned-pol Mark Warner won an impressive victory in the very Republican state of Virginia. And Democrat Jim McGreevey, a longtime fixture in New Jersey politics, won in a landslide against a GOP opponent whom middle-of-the-road voters found too conservative for the Garden State.

The Nov. 6 victories -- which narrow the Republicans' edge in governorships to 27 vs. 21 for the Democrats (with two independents) -- had to be delicious for Democrats. But they're just the hors d'oeuvres for the main course: 36 gubernatorial contests in 2002.

Democrats have reason for optimism. They've won 12 of the last 16 governor's races. Of the 36 governorships up for grabs next year, Republicans are defending 23. (Of the remaining 13, 11 are Democrats and 2 are independents, including Minnesota's Jesse Ventura.) Term limits and retirements will cost the GOP 11 incumbents to just 5 for the Democrats. And the sagging economy will likely hurt the party in power: the Republicans.

While Democrats should be encouraged by their prospects, they have plenty of reason for concern. So far, Republicans have had an excellent season recruiting gubernatorial candidates. One star catch: Senator Frank Murkowski, who is heavily favored to win a Democratic open seat in Alaska. President Bush remains exceptionally popular, and he's sure to be more involved in the 2002 races than he was this year, when wartime duties kept him off the campaign trail.

Here are thumbnail sketches of 10 of the most closely watched gubernatorial races of 2002:

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State could host the most interesting contest in the country. Pennsylvania has a history dating back more than a half-century of switching control of the governor's mansion every eight years. That means this would be the Democrats' turn to win.

But it may not be so simple this time. Former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and State Auditor Robert P. Casey Jr., son of a popular ex-governor, are heading for a divisive Democratic primary. GOP Attorney General Mike Fisher is the candidate of ex-Governor (and now Homeland Security czar) Tom Ridge, but he may prove too conservative for swing voters. Ridge's successor, former Lieutenant Governor Mark Schweiker, has announced he will not run for a full term.

Outlook: Democrats have a slight edge.

California: Governor Gray Davis once was considered a front-runner for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, but now he's fighting for survival. The state's 2000 electricity crisis and the current flap over potential threats to California bridges have made Davis perhaps the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the nation.

What's more, Republicans have recruited former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate with crossover potential. The risk: Riordan, a millionaire businessman, often shoots from the hip, an attribute that can be explosive for a politician in a high-profile race.

Outlook: Toss-up.

Massachusetts: Can the Republicans continue to control states in the heavily Democratic Northeast? GOP strategists say yes -- as long as their candidates are moderate and unstained by scandal. Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift is clearly a centrist, but she has been involved in controversies involving the use of state employees for personal business. Dems hope to reclaim the state for the first time since Michael Dukakis' departure in 1990. Count on a bloody intramural fight in the primary.

Outlook: Toss-up.

South Carolina.: Although Dixie is solidly Republican at the Presidential level, the GOP has been confounded by Democratic wins for governor in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. The defeat of South Carolina's Republican governor, David Beasley, was one of the biggest upsets of 1998. This state is heavily Republican, but there's a messy GOP primary ahead. Moderate Democrat Jim Hodges remains a popular governor.

Outlook: Democrats have a slight edge.

Florida: This could be the most colorful contest of 2002: President Bush's baby brother, Jeb, vs. Bill Clinton's Attorney General, Janet Reno. Early polls give Bush a big lead. But Reno has celebrity appeal and is a dogged campaigner. She could pull off a surprise -- or lose in a landslide.

Outlook: Republican advantage.

New Mexico: Another former Clinton Cabinet official, former Energy Secretary and Congressman Bill Richardson, is considered the likely Democratic choice. He'll be a tough foe for either Lieutenant Governor Walter Bradley or ex-governor and health-care company CEO Garrey Carruthers.

Outlook: Democratic advantage.

Texas: George W. Bush's replacement as governor, Rick Perry, hasn't distinguished himself in his first year on the job. But the Lone Star state is staunchly Republican, and the President probably has coattails back home. The Democratic favorite is a wealthy businessman, Tony Sanchez, who has given money to Bush in the past. If Sanchez can fashion an image as a maverick centrist and mobilize the state's large Latino bloc, there's the potential for an upset that could embarrass the President.

Outlook: Republican advantage.

Wisconsin: Tommy Thompson quit to become Secretary of Health & Human Services, and his lieutenant governor, Scott McCallum, may have an uphill fight to keep the state in Republican hands. The leading Democrats are Attorney General Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Congressman Tom Barrett.

Outlook: Toss-up.

Michigan: Governor John Engler, a towering figure in Wolverine State politics, is retiring after 12 years, and Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus is his designated successor. The biggest name in the Democratic field is former Governor Jim Blanchard, who was ousted by Engler in 1990. Other heavyweight Dems are Attorney General Jennifer Granholm and David Bonior, the Democratic House Minority Whip in Washington.

Outlook: Democrats have a slight edge.

Illinois:Republican Governor George Ryan is quitting after one term, his administration enmeshed in scandal. A nasty GOP primary is in store between conservative Attorney General Jim Ryan (no relation) and moderate Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood. The three top Democratic contenders all hail from Chicago. Dems have a golden opportunity here if downstate voters can be convinced to accept a Polish or African-American pol from the Windy City. Remember: Southern Illinois is closer to Mississippi than to Chicago.

Outlook: Toss-up.

This is the second in an occasional series of previews of the 2002 elections. A look at the top Senate contests appeared on Aug. 20 (see BW Online, 8/20/01, "Hot Spots in the 2002 Senate Race"). Next: A preview of the House races to watch. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

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