CHARLESTON, S.C. Poll results. Demographics. The issues playing best with voters, like immigration, stem cells, homeland security.
The three-day annual summer gathering of the National Governors Assn. is aimed at tackling health care, education and other policy challenges facing every state. But the morning was all about politics and how each party could best come out ahead as 36 states choose governors this fall.
With tight elections in many of the most critical states and several swing states that must be won for any presidential victory in 2008, governors' political groups are leading all other similar organizations in cash raised so far.
"It's a huge year," said Democrat Gov. Tim Kaine, of Virginia.
An analysis of the latest fundraising by the Democratic Governors Assn. and the Republican Governors Assn. showed they were the top groups structured as a 527 - named for a tax code provision that became a well-used loophole in campaign finance reform, allowing unlimited soft money contributions.
The RGA reported $25.9 million raised so far in the two-year 2006 election cycle. Roughly $12 million of that was raised this year alone, RGA officials say. The DGA reported $17.9 million raised, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington that tracks campaign financing.
The RGA is on track to break all earlier records, said RGA Executive Director Phil Musser.
The two organizations' totals outpace all other similar fundraising groups, including the $15.6 million raised by the Service Employees International Union and $11.6 million raised by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Among the contested races:
¢ Ohio: A critical swing state for the White House features an open seat where polls show Democrat Ted Strickland ahead of Republican Kenneth Blackwell. President Bush visited last week to help raise $1.5 million.
¢ Pennsylvania: Incumbent Ed Rendell, a Democrat, is being challenged by former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann, who is carrying GOP hopes for an upset.
¢ Florida: Another open seat since Gov. Jeb Bush is term-limited, and both parties are in vigorous primaries. Voters will narrow the choices to two in Sept. 5.
Nationally, Republicans hold 28 governorships to the Democrats' 22.
Republicans have to defend 22 executive mansions compared to 14 held by Democrats. When it comes to vacant seats, Republicans are trying to hold onto seven offices compared to just one for the Democrats.
Democrats, who lost the majority of governorships in 1994, are counting on widespread dissatisfaction with GOP control in Washington to boost the odds in their favor even more. A network of strong governors can boost presidential campaigns and shape domestic policy - and develop a farm team for higher office.
"I think it's going to be a very good year for Democratic governorships," said Arizona's Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. "It's very probable, if not sheer likely, that the Democrats will be a majority."
Republicans don't dispute the odds. However, Gov. Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts, head of the RGA, who is not seeking re-election and is exploring a presidential run, said he's confident the group will pick up several seats now held by Democrats to limit the losses.