Political pros have already begun sifting through the maze of major races this fall, 504 in all. Their goal: to isolate the few that will tell the most about America's political future.
In response to a Monitor query, Republican and Democratic professionals cited about a dozen key races the public should keep an eye on.
Governors' races head their list - particularly in the big electoral states of New York, California, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, where all the contests are rated close.
Then come a few Senate races - particularly in Virginia and Mississippi - as tests of potential Republican gains in the South. Also, the staying power of socially conservative candidates like Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, in trouble in his home state of Utah, will be sharply watched.
House races, taken individually, fall off somewhat in significance - although several, like the contest between liberal Democrat Rep. Barney Frank and moderate Republican Rep. Margaret M. Heckler in Massachusetts, will draw national audiences.
What the pros are looking for:
* Will what looked like a conservative Republican surge in 1980 be sustained in 1982?
* Will Reagan's mandate be renewed? And will Reagan be able to maintain his political offensive in Washington?
* How will the upcoming elections set the stage for a Democratic challenge in 1984?
Although the six most crucial weeks of campaigning have yet to run, the likely framework for answering those questions has already begun to take shape.
If the Republicans lose 10 or 15 seats in the House as now expected, the norm for a President's first midterm, President Reagan could claim the election was a draw and his mandate maintained. The Republican advantage in money and organization would have cut those losses. Reagan could claim a victory of sorts, but to the political pro it would mean GOP fortunes had reached a plateau in 1980, without getting a bonus from redistricting and increased Sunbelt seats in 1982.
If the outcome in the Senate is a shift of a seat or two, as now appears likely, the Democrats could claim a victory. They have almost twice as many incumbents up for reelection. Looking ahead, the Democrats would expect to regain control of the Senate in 1984, when the Republicans will have to field a weak lineup of incumbents.
In governorships, the November 1982 stakes will have a lot to do with the two parties' power bases for the 1984 White House race. Of the 36 governorships at stake in 1982, the Democrats are clearly ahead in 19 races, the Republicans ahead in 5, with 12 races rated very close or even, according to a Monitor survey this week. The governorships, then, hold the greatest potential for a political power shift in the November elections.
Of the major races of 1982, political experts put the five big governorships first. New York, with its primary still to be held Sept. 23, is up for grabs. If New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo survive the Democratic primary with Mr. Cuomo as an independent on the November ballot, the race could be handed to Republican Lewis Lehrman, credited by many observers with the best-run campaign in this election.
In California, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's nine-point lead over Attorney General George Deukmejian, the Republican, does not look comfortable to Democratic strategists. The Texas governor's race, between incumbent Republican William P. Clements and Attorney General Mark White, looks like it could go down to the wire. In Ohio, where Republican US Rep. Clarence Brown faces former Lt. Gov. Richard Celeste, the Democrat has the edge. So does former Sen. Adlai Stevenson III in Illinois over incumbent Republican Gov. James Thompson.
How these governorships will split in the end is anybody's guess. But whichever party gains the advantage will sharpen its electoral vote edge in the 1984 presidential race.
If the Democrats gain in governorships, they may claim it was a truer test of the President's program with voters, as governors are held responsible for state economic fortunes.