Although most Americans are focused on the presidential campaign, voters in 11 states are also choosing governors this fall in races that offer an important prelude to 2010, when most of the nation's governors' offices are up for grabs.
And the winners in 2010 will enjoy a special political perk: a chance to influence the drawing of maps that determine congressional and state legislative districts.
"The stakes are very high at the state level," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association. "The day after Election Day, the next big thing is 2010."
The last of the gubernatorial matchups will be set Tuesday when voters in Delaware, New Hampshire and Vermont nominate candidates in their state primaries. Democrats currently hold 28 governor's offices. Republicans have 22.
The maps are redrawn every 10 years after the census to ensure that legislative districts reflect population changes. Republicans say 25 seats in Congress could be in play as a result of the outcome of governors' races in 2010.
Until recently, Republicans were holding their breath ahead of the Nov. 4 election, hoping just to keep the governors they already have and possibly pick up one more.
Then John McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. GOP leaders hope Palin's electrifying performance at the party's convention and her campaign skills spark renewed interest in Republican governors.
Now the Republican Governors' Association thinks its candidates could have a serious chance to win Washington and North Carolina and maintain Missouri.
"There's no question it is a huge asset not only for the party but for people running for governor," said Nick Ayers, the RGA's executive director. "Her selection is a game-changer."
Both parties are raising record amounts of cash ahead of the 2010 contest. Democrats want to hold their edge while Republicans want to retake the gubernatorial majority they held for more than a decade.
Legislative mapmaking isn't the only prize. Control of governors offices is key in a presidential year because of governors' built-in fundraising and organizing machines. Three of the last four presidential races have been won by candidates whose party also had a gubernatorial majority.
"The parties know the health of their state machines and ultimately the makeup of those districts is essential to their futures, not only within the state but nationally as well," said political scientist Philip Russo of Ohio's Miami University.
Topping the list of November races is the rematch in Washington between incumbent Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, who lost by 133 votes in 2004 after three recounts and a court challenge.
In the state's new "top two" primary last month, voters picked two finalists for November regardless of party. Gregoire edged Rossi 48 percent to 46 percent, an uncomfortably close margin given the 2004 results.
"Let me assure you, I take nothing for granted," Gregoire said in an interview.
For her, victory means a chance for a majority of Democratic governors to work with a Democratic president should Obama be elected.
"We're looking at this election as key and the next one as key because we desperately need the opportunity to take our leadership role ... and have a good partner in the White House," Gregoire said.
Rossi says he's encouraged by strong fundraising, volunteer efforts and solid name recognition. That contrasts with 2004 when, he quips, "most people in the state thought Dino Rossi was some kind of wine."
Governors are incubators of ideas, Rossi said, and the more Republicans promoting business-friendly policies, the better.
"That's part of what this is about," he said. "Having people who really are more free-enterprise oriented understand that you have to have a strong economy and understand the life's blood of the economy is smaller and medium-size businesses."
Other governors' races of interest Nov. 4:
- In Missouri, Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof is trying to keep GOP control of the governor's office after one-term incumbent Matt Blunt stunned the state earlier this year by announcing he would not run again. Hulshof faces Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who's banking that Blunt's unpopularity will extend to Hulshof.
- In North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue is running to succeed incumbent Mike Easley, a fellow Democrat who is leaving because of term limits. Perdue is being opposed by Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican.
The state has a history of electing Democratic governors, but the race will still be a test case for the party's bigger challenge in 2010: keeping Democratic governors in traditionally Republican states, including Arizona, Kansas and Tennessee.
- In Indiana, incumbent Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels faces former Democratic congresswoman Jill Long Thompson. Long Thompson survived an expensive primary and is far behind Daniels in fundraising. But Democrats think Daniels is vulnerable because of the state's weak economy and his controversial decision to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium.
Looking ahead to 2010, Democrats believe GOP governors in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island, among others, are ripe for defeat.
Republicans will take aim at Democratic governors in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In the latter state, Gov. Ted Strickland was the first Democrat elected in 20 years when he won in 2006. But he faces a potentially strong challenge from former Rep. John Kasich, a former Bush administration official who's exploring a run.
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