GOP Gaining In Bid to Capture Governorships

Democrats could lose long-time majority; Republican strength could be prelude to '96

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

CORN farmer Dale Unruh leans back in his chair at My Kitchen cafe, slides up his cap, and regales the morning crowd here with some of the attitude that threatens to dislodge Democrats from governorships around the country.

Retiring Democratic Gov. Joan Finney ``is not running because she wouldn't win,'' he says matter-of-factly. ``Clinton's the same. He is definitely a one-term president. He's a joke.''

The morning chat in this southwestern Kansas coffee shop reflects the kind of conservative, anti-Washington populism tilting Kansas toward a Republican governor.

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In one form or another, much the same force is at work in many other states. Thirty-six states will elect governors next Tuesday, and Republicans have put Democratic governorships at serious risk in 12 of them. GOP turf is in serious jeopardy, on the other hand, in only three.

Some of the closest races in the biggest states have tightened up in recent days as Democrats fight back, yet current polls suggest that Republicans could seize a majority of governorships for the first time since 1970, says Lisa Lackovic, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan National Governors' Association.

The potential rise of Republican governors not only can steer such big national issues as health care and welfare reform, but can influence the 1996 presidential race as well through the ability governors possess to organize for primary candidates.

In 1996 the primaries will be bunched more closely on the calendar, notes Thad Beyle, a University of North Carolina political scientist, ``so candidates for the Republican Party will have to rely on these governors'' for support.

In 1988, for example, then-Gov. John Sununu (R) helped deliver New Hampshire to George Bush in the primary. Four years later, Gov. Zell Miller (D) helped Bill Clinton sweep Georgia.

Although Democratic incumbent Gov. Mario Cuomo has pulled ahead of his GOP challenger lately in New York, Republicans are even or ahead in the other three of the four largest states - California, Texas, and Florida.

The Republican tide in governorships is most apparent across the Midwest, as well as in traditional Democratic strongholds in the South, says Dr. Beyle, an expert on statehouse politics.

In Kansas, anti-Washington sentiment has bogged down the campaign of Jim Slattery, a 12-year veteran of Congress. Although he is well-known, a prominent deficit hawk in Congress, with strong qualifications for the job by traditional measures, Mr. Slattery is trailing the lesser-known Republican Secretary of State Bill Graves by more than 10 percentage points.

Mr. Unruh, the Deerfield farmer, displays the kind of support for fresh faces that is a force in this election. Of the Democratic nominee, he says: ``Slattery has been in the game too long; he'll be influenced by Washington politics.'' Of his rival: ``Graves is a comparatively new person. I think he's a little more on the level.''

``Slattery is much more weighed down by political baggage'' from Washington, says Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. Mr. Graves, in contrast, is a relatively ``fresh face'' who ``has benefited greatly from the Republican tide and the desire in Kansas for less government.''

Slattery agrees that grass-roots hostility toward Congress hampers his campaign. ``There is no question that the public's perception of Congress is very negative,'' he told the Monitor in a recent interview.

THE Graves camp, meanwhile, is using this year's textbook lines of attack, depicting Slattery as a Clinton ally, a tax-and-spend liberal, and a Washington-based politician divorced from his home state.

``Congressman Slattery's approach is a Washington approach, and Washington solutions for Kansas problems won't work,'' says Graves's spokesman Mike Matson.

The Graves campaign points to Slattery's support of Clinton initiatives such as the 1993 tax-raising, deficit-cutting budget ``that are not popular in Kansas,'' Mr. Matson says.

Kansas is a traditionally Republican state, but moderate Democrats have often won the governorship in recent decades.

Two mostly moderate Democratic governors are in trouble in Texas and Florida at the hands of two sons of George Bush. Both Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who is opposed by George W. Bush, and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who faces Jeb Bush, have shown narrow leads this week in some polls, but they each remain embattled in toss-up contests.

In California, incumbent Republican Pete Wilson has lost some ground lately to Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown, but he remains well in front and few expect an upset there.

New York's Governor Cuomo was on many ``most vulnerable'' lists as recently as a couple weeks ago, but he now enjoys a comfortable, double-digit lead over Republican George Pataki.

Other Democratic-held governorships where Republicans lead: New Mexico, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania. Tennessee, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Rhode Island are too close to call.

Republican-held states where Democrats lead: Maine, Arizona, and Alaska. Iowa is too close to call. Republican John Rowland leads in Connecticut, now under Independent Lowell Weicker.

Fifteen of the 36 governorships up for election are open seats due to retirements, term limits, or primary losses.

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