Latest political trophy: the governor's chair

When House minority whip David Bonior announced this week that he is running for governor of Michigan, he joined a growing list of prominent national politicians who are hoping to find a new home in their state capitals.

From Andrew Cuomo in New York to the still-unannounced Janet Reno in Florida and Bill Richardson in New Mexico, a number of former members of the Clinton administration are now eyeing governors' seats.

More unusual, on the Republican side, senators such as Frank Murkowski of Alaska and Craig Thomas of Wyoming are reportedly considering a run for governor, and some speculation has touched on a number of their colleagues.

In part, the rush to the governor's mansion has to do with pure political calculus. Of the 38 governorships up in the next two years, at least 19 are likely to be open seats - where incumbents are either term-limited, expected to retire, or, in a few cases, have joined the Bush administration.

But it also illustrates the extent to which the job track in politics is changing. Indeed, in a year in which supporters of former President Bill Clinton called on him to run for mayor of New York - and were only half kidding - it's clear that the traditional political hierarchy no longer exists. Governors, in particular, have taken on a new glamour. Many saw their stature rise in the 1990s, as a result of their success in dealing with issues like welfare reform, crime, and education. Washington politicians, meanwhile, have struggled with an image of inefficiency and partisanship.

Many of the most prominent governors came into office in the Republican sweep of 1994 and were reelected in 1998, but are now term-limited - making 2002 the first year for a substantial number of newcomers to take a shot at the post.

"This is a big year for governors' [races]," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington. "Four years ago, it was a lot of incumbents who were running for reelection in good times, but now the economy has softened in some states ... and you've got some 800-pound gorillas looking at these governors' races."

Although the traditional political job track is still to climb the ranks in state government and then make the switch to Washington, there are a number of reasons why top federal officials these days might be drawn to a governor's seat. For politicians who are tired of Washington backbiting, the less partisan nature of state legislatures - some of which don't even meet every year - might be a factor. Also, some lawmakers may simply want more time at home, as many members of Congress no longer relocate their families to Washington, but commute back and forth from their districts.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a former congressman, says he's not surprised that the chance to be chief executive of a state holds appeal even for senators. "I think there's an opportunity for innovation and creativity ... at the state level, which, at least initially, is impossible to do at the federal level," he says, recalling that Pete Wilson -a former California governor and senator - recently confessed to him that his best years were in the governor's seat.

Some lawmakers might also be motivated by a change in their current position - such as Republican senators who lost chairmanships when control of the Senate changed hands. (Senator Murkowski lost the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.) In Congressman Bonior's case, the redistricting process had left him with a mostly Republican district, where he would have had a difficult time winning reelection.

There's also the ongoing connection between governorships and the presidency, which undoubtedly adds to the position's allure. "If you want to be president, I would suggest you become a governor," President Bush told a group of New Mexico elementary students this week. "Because governors make decisions, and that's what presidents do."

But opportunity may be the most important factor: Over the next two years, 25 Republican seats will be up for reelection (Virginia and New Jersey in 2001, the rest in 2002), along with 11 Democratic ones and two Independents. Both sides agree the landscape favors Democrats, as Republicans have far more seats to defend, many in Democratic-leaning states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

"You've got the numbers on their side," admits Governor Ridge, adding that Republicans hope to hold on to a majority by recruiting strong candidates.

Democrats say they're confident they'll regain a majority. Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors' Association, points to the number of strong candidates already campaigning in big states as evidence that Democrats see real opportunity this cycle - and says the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election convinced many of the importance of governorships.

Indeed, in a few cases, such as Florida, New York, and Michigan, the party may actually have too many strong candidates vying for the seat - which could lead to tough primary fights.

"In some of these states, we have so many good candidates, we'd love to send them elsewhere," Mr. Pfeiffer admits. "But having too many good candidates is a problem you want to have in politics."

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