Democrats Poised to Take Majority of Governorships Up for Grabs in Election '92

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM a national perspective, they have been races that 1992 almost forgot.

Because there are only 12 contests, in mostly smaller states and without high-profile names in a pivotal presidential year, this fall's state gubernatorial campaigns have been the least-watched in a decade.

Democrats are poised to capture four governorships from the Republican column (Delaware, Missouri, Montana, and North Carolina) and hold onto five others (Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia), according to polls released by the Republican and Democratic Governor's Associations. Two states are tossups (North Dakota and New Hampshire), and one safely Republican (Utah). Three (Montana, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) have women candidates.

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Regardless of which party wins, nine states will have new chief executives. Returning to a trend of the early 1980s, Democrats look likely to hold about two-thirds of the 50 posts.

"This is a themeless year for governors nationwide," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Because of 1990 reapportionment battles, that election had far more national attention. The top issue now, Mr. Schier says, is legislative term limits, not a big draw for voters.

Both Democratic and Republican analysts agree that jobs, the economy, and taxes are the primary concerns of voters in gubernatorial races. But following the recent national trend in which state politics have become increasingly detached from the federal level, analysts say there is no immediate or simple coattail effect from national campaigns.

"All the action has been at the presidential and congressional level," adds Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "One would have to stretch pretty far to draw national implications from these races."

Chris Henick, chief spokesman for the Republican Governor's Association, sees a trend in support for raising taxes by Democrats. "Republicans are running on issues of governmental reform - trying to give voters a sense of delivering better services in a tight economy," he says.

Other analysts have called 1992 the GOP's year of the attorney general: Marc Racicot, Montana; William Webster, Missouri; Stephen Merrill, New Hampshire; and Linley Pearson, Indiana.

"Mostly, this is the year that states with governor's races at the same time as the presidential campaign realize they ought to reconsider their timing," says Thad Beyle, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Bush and Clinton and their surrogates are driving out all the news of local and state issues."

Here is a wrap-up of key races:

* New Hampshire: Arnie Arne-sen (D) has called for tax reform and a 6 percent income tax in a tight race (Arnesen, 39 percent, GOP candidate Mr. Merrill, 48 percent, and 12 percent undecided). "The fact that Arnesen is doing well in a state where the absence of income tax has been a civic religion shows New Hampshire voters are not the reliable, right-wing idiots everyone thinks they are," says analyst Marvin Braiterman, a professor at New England College in Henniker.

* North Carolina: Riding a popularity engendered by his plan for education reform, economic development, and crime-fighting, former Gov. Jim Hunt (D) leads 56 percent to 37 percent, over GOP Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner.

* Rhode Island: Newcomer Elizabeth Leonard (R) trails Democratic Gov. Bruce Sundlun 56 percent to 30 percent, with 13 percent undecided. Ms. Leonard has avoided debating, bought little tv or radio time, and is using no professional advisers besides family members. Bolstered by high job-performance ratings and promises he won't aim for a third term, Governor Sundlun has overcome negative publicity from a credit-union crisis to lead 56 percent to 30 percent, with 13 percent undecided.

* Washington: GOP challenger Ken Eikenberry has been scolded for his no-new-taxes stance while supporting expansion of services, but is neck-and-neck with former Congressman Mike Lowry (D). An Oct. 21-22 poll by the Washington State Democratic Party shows Mr. Lowry at 49 percent, Mr. Eikenberry at 42 percent, and 9 percent undecided.

* Delaware: Congressman Tom Carper (D) has raised more than $1 million to lead Gary Scott (R) 52 percent to 31 percent, with 17 percent undecided.

* Indiana: Mr. Pearson is running on a "no new taxes" GOP platform, but incumbent Evan Bayh was named to the Cato Institute's top ten "Good Governor Guide" on fiscal policy. Mr. Bayh leads 67 percent to 28 percent.

* Missouri: New allegations of misconduct against Mr. Webster (R) for allegedly mishandling the state's workers' compensation insurance fund have hurt him. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan leads 57 percent to 35 percent.

* Montana: Democrat Dorothy Bradley leads Mr. Racicot (R) 49 percent to 43 percent. She is considered the woman candidate most likely to win.

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