Term limits, the weak economy and some unusual timing combine to make this election year the most competitive for governors in recent memory, with 36 of the states' top jobs coming up for a vote.
It could be an especially challenging year for Republicans, if only because the GOP made such sweeping gains in the past decade that the party's staying power will now be tested.
"It's a lousy time to be governor," said Charlie Cook, a political analyst in Washington. "Governors are having to raise taxes and cut spending after we've gone through the greatest eight, nine years (financially) in modern history."
The outcome for the two parties means more than bragging rights governors do much to drive domestic policy and will play key roles in the 2004 presidential election.
The first primary arrives March 5 in California, where the latest polls show Democrat Gov. Gray Davis trailing the best-known of three GOP candidates, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
The ailing economy is driving the debate there and just about everywhere else, too. Painful cuts or tax increases are fueling campaign talk in big states like New York, Florida and Texas, and competitive races in a long list of other places including Michigan, Arizona and Hawaii.
Negative ads are already on the air in Illinois, where at least six candidates are seeking major party nominations in the race to succeed GOP Gov. George Ryan, who chose not to run for another term after a bribery scandal.
In Pennsylvania, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and state Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. (the son and namesake of a popular, former two-term governor) are competing for the Democratic nomination. The winner will face GOP Atty. Gen. Mike Fisher, since Gov. Mark Schweiker who ascended to the office when Tom Ridge went to Washington said he won't run.
In Massachusetts and Wisconsin, two Republican governors who weren't elected to their posts Jane Swift and Scott McCallum, both former lieutenant governors are seen as vulnerable, making for crowded Democratic primaries.
High-profile names are jumping into the fray, such as former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno seeking to challenge Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former HUD Director Andrew Cuomo hoping to run against New York Gov. George Pataki, and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich joining the Massachusetts race.
GOP has more to lose
But in the big picture, the GOP has more to lose.
Republican governors outnumber Democratic governors 27 to 21 (Maine's Angus King is an independent, and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura is from the Independence Party). Twenty-three of the 36 seats up for election are now held by the GOP.
Incumbents can only run for re-election in half of the 36 states, with most being pushed out by term limits. Republicans now hold 11 of those open seats to the Democrats' six.
"We've got our hands full, no question," said Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut, head of the Republican Governors Assn. While hopeful the party can maintain its majority, he said it is more important to focus on strong GOP governors who will help the Bush re-election campaign come 2004.
"The numbers really work for us this time," said Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont. He said the large number of open GOP seats is "the Republican echo" from 1994, when the GOP routed Democrats across the country.
Dean, who is not seeking re-election after 10 years in office, said Democrats have strong candidates and a natural appeal to voters worried about health care, education and jobs. The party's goal: to win a majority of governor's offices.
Republicans maintain their successes in the past eight years won't be forgotten by voters.
"We've done what people really wanted done," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a term-limited 1994 winner who said GOP governors led the way on welfare reform and improving education.
Democratic governors went into 1994 with 29 states to Republicans' 20; the elections reversed that, with Republicans in 30 governor's offices and Democrats 19. Last year, Democratic governors won in New Jersey and Virginia.
"After eight years, it's a big time-for-a-change argument. And the economy's in bad shape," said John Kohut, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "Add it all up and it's a field of plenty for the Democrats, taking the country as a whole."
These elections also will test a budding movement for campaign finance reform: Public financing could affect on races in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. And in a swath of Southern states Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina gains by Democrats will be put to the test.
Both parties are promising to put significant financial support behind their gubernatorial campaigns.
Maryland Gov. Paris Glendening, head of the Democratic Governors Assn., has said his party will spend up to $30 million. Rowland said the GOP expects to spend at least $20 million.
"Governors have real input," said Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections. "(They) tend to be a farm team for political control of the state, for future U.S. senators and congressmen, and future presidents."
History bears Faucheux out: four of the last five residents of the White House came through governor's offices.