Columbia, S.C. "The question," said Bob McAlister, a veteran of former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell's staff, "is why either of these guys wants it."
The "guys" he was referring to are Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges and his Republican challenger, former U.S. House member Mark Sanford. His wonderment stems from the fact that this state, like so many others electing governors next month, faces a daunting budget deficit that will make the coming legislative session a brutal exercise for anyone sitting in the executive chamber.
Across the country, from Florida to California, state governments this year responded to slumping revenues and increasing costs, especially in their Medicaid programs, by emptying their "rainy day" funds, freezing or cutting payrolls and employing a variety of one-time fixes to satisfy (at least on paper) the requirement that they balance their budgets.
Without those gimmicks, or an economic boom that is not yet in sight, the governors who will be sworn in next January face the unhappy prospect of cutting popular programs, raising taxes or both.
Nonetheless, the competition in the 36 gubernatorial races is intense. While the vast majority of House contests are walkovers and most senators facing re-election can be confident of success, the governorships are hard-fought. The prospect is for a major turnover in their ranks. Thanks to term limits and candidacies for other offices, 20 of the races have no incumbents. In all but a handful of those contests, a change of party control is either likely or possible. Half the incumbents on the ballot, including Hodges, are running for their lives.
The hot pursuit of governorships is not as crazy as it may seem. When good times return as presumably they will no job in government can provide greater opportunity or satisfaction than being a governor. Just ask John Engler, finishing up a 12-year run as governor of Michigan. He was first elected in the recession year of 1990 and he faced an inherited deficit in his first legislative session. But when Michigan prospered again, Engler was not only able to be re-elected twice but to engineer fundamental changes in his state's education and welfare systems achievements that will be felt long after he leaves office.
And politically, governors are the heavyweights far closer to the battle for the White House than the senators who hog the Washington stage. Four of the last five presidents have come from the ranks of governors. And it was the Republican governors who were the force behind President Bush's victory from the early endorsements Engler helped to engineer right down to the Florida recount victory stage-managed by Gov. Jeb Bush.
This year, it is the Democrats who sense an opportunity to strengthen themselves in the gubernatorial elections. Jeb Bush has his hands full in Florida, and in three states that were the historical birthplace of the Republican Party Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois Democratic candidates are threatening to end long GOP control of the governors' offices. A Democrat is favored to take over in Pennsylvania. Other states which could also see a switch from the GOP include Arizona, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Republicans have opportunities for offsetting gains in Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont but those would hardly balance the possible loss of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. The real challenge for the Democrats is to hold on to their beachheads in governorships in South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia lonely holdouts in the Deep South territory that was swept by George Bush in 2000.
In 2004, the 11 Southern states will have 153 electoral votes well over half the 270 needed for victory. Whatever hopes the Democrats may have of denying Bush that huge head start on his second term rest on their ability to exploit the biracial coalitions which elected governors in those three states and, more recently, in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi.
Of the three Democratic Southern governors up this year, only Georgia's Roy Barnes rates a favorite. Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman trails slightly behind Republican Rep. Bob Riley and here, Hodges and Sanford are locked up in a very close race.
In coming decades, the growing Latino population in the South may bolster Democratic chances, as it has already done in Florida and Texas. But until then, governorships are critical to the Democrats' maintaining the small share of the white vote they need to make their solid support from African-Americans add up to a majority. "If we were to lose the governorships, the bottom might drop out," said veteran South Carolina Democratic leader Donald Fowler.
The stakes could not be higher.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.