WASHINGTON — AMERICAN voters choose 36 governors this year in state elections expected to have long-term national repercussions. The first political shootout comes on Tuesday in the Texas primaries. Other party primaries follow in California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and a number of other pivotal states.
What's at stake? Plenty, according to the experts. These elections for governor could affect the balance of power in Washington, especially in Congress, until the year 2002.
Following the 1990 census, state governments will reapportion most of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives. Governors have considerable influence in redistricting, which they can use to benefit their own party.
``This [election] will determine how the political maps are drawn for the rest of this century,'' explains Mark Gearan, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association.
Norm Cummings, political director for the Republican National Committee, notes that governors in most states influence redistricting not only for Congress, but also for state legislatures.
The parties are keenly aware of the potential risks, and rewards. The redistricting process will be especially critical in states gaining new congressional seats.
The biggest prize will be California, which will add as many as six new congressional seats in 1992. Texas and Florida will add three new seats each, and Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia are expected to get one new seat apiece.
Republicans bitterly recall 1981, when Democrats totally controlled the previous redistricting process in California. The result was a Republican disaster. Although each party gets about the same popular vote for Congress in California, Democrats ended up with 60 percent of the state's 45 seats because of gerrymandered districts.
GOP officials are determined that won't happen again - either in California, or in other states that are gaining representation.
The redistricting process also is particularly important in states that will lose congressional seats. They include the biggest loser, New York, which will drop an estimated three seats, as well as states expected to give up two seats apiece: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Dropping one seat apiece will probably be Montana, Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia, and Massachusetts.
``In those states it will be a question of which congressman is going to be pushed over the cliff,'' says Alan Heslop, a research associate at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont-McKenna College. ``If just one party controls the process, it will be a congressman of the other party that is sacrificed.''
The White House, urged on by Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is throwing its weight into the gubernatorial contests.
President Bush traveled to California twice last month to raise funds for the presumptive Republican candidate for governor, US Sen. Pete Wilson. Behind the scenes, Mr. Atwater has moved to strengthen GOP chances in Florida, Ohio, and Illinois. In Florida he diffused a threat to incumbent GOP Gov. Bob Martinez, who faced a potential primary challenge from Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, by convincing the mayor not to run.
Democrats are giving the gubernatorial races their highest priority.
``Without question, these are the most important races this year,'' says Mr. Gearan. ``This is a rare happening - 36 races, plus redistricting. It happens only once every 20 years.''
Both parties appear to be focusing on five states - California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.
``You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that they are the key,'' Gearan says.
At the moment, four of the five are in Republican hands. But every one of the five shapes up as a close contest:
Texas. Both parties have strong fields. The leading Republicans are Clayton Williams, a multimillionaire rancher and oilman; Kent Hance, state railroad commissioner; Jack Rains, a former secretary of state; and Tom Luce, an attorney. Mr. Williams, using his personal fortune to buy TV ads, is currently riding high in the saddle, but could be forced into a runoff.
Among Democrats, the top three are former Gov. Mark White, state Treasurer Ann Richards, and Attorney General Jim Mattox. Governor White leads the polls. Mrs. Richards, whose 1988 Democratic keynote address charged that George Bush was born with ``a silver foot in his mouth,'' is being dogged by questions about whether she ever used illegal drugs.
California. This is the big one. On the Republican side, Senator Wilson has a clear field, which allows him to raise campaign money and focus his fire on the Democrats.
Democrats presumed their nominee would be Attorney General John Van de Kamp. But former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, with a TV blitz emphasizing her positions against crime, has moved up smartly in polls.
Florida. No Republican in this century has ever been reelected to a statewide office in Florida. Governor Martinez hopes to end that losing streak. But some question his political prowess. He flip-flopped on a new services tax (first for it, then against). And most Floridians oppose his anti-abortion stance.
Many Democrats are resting their hopes on US Rep. Bill Nelson, whose squeaky-clean image appeals across party lines. Also in the race is state Sen. George Stuart.
Ohio. Republicans, led by former Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, have made Ohio one of their prime targets for 1990. GOP chairman Atwater convinced another leading Republican, Robert Taft II, to run for secretary of state, rather than challenge Mr. Voinovich.
Democrats also united quickly behind Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze, who has held statewide office since 1979. Analysts say Mr. Celebrezze's biggest problem could be the bad taste of corruption from the current Democratic administration - and questions about why he did not do more as attorney general to clean things up.
Illinois. Believe it or not, James Thompson (R) won't be governor of Illinois after this year. He has served since 1977, the longest in Illinois history.
Leading the GOP field is Secretary of State Jim Edgar. The probable Democratic nominee is Attorney General Neil Hartigan. Mr. Edgar has long been considered Governor Thompson's heir apparent. But that could be a problem. Voters are upset about higher taxes imposed by Thompson, and may be looking for a change. Analysts predict a race that could go down to the wire.