They extend like a glittering necklace across the Sunbelt - Florida, Texas, California - the jewels of the 1990 political campaign. All three states choose new governors next month in elections that could redraw the map of American politics.
Much more is at stake than three big-state governorships. Through their choices for governor, voters in Florida, Texas, and California will play a major role in shaping Congress until 2002.
``Our top priority this year is the states, especially the large states, with redistricting and reapportionment,'' says Charles Black, the chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Former President Reagan, campaigning for Republicans last week in Florida, called this governor's race here ``tremendously significant ... to the nation.''
The Sun Belt states are clearly where America's political future lies. Florida, only the seventh largest state 10 years ago, leaped past Ohio in 1984, Illinois in 1986, and Pennsylvania in 1987. In just one decade, it added more than 3 million people - a number greater than the individual populations of 22 states. Nine hundred residents move here daily for sunshine and economic opportunity.
Texas grew more slowly as the oil industry sagged; but it still gained rapidly on No. 2 New York, which Texas will probably overtake in the '90s.
California, the big enchilada of American politics, will soon boast 52 House members - 12 percent of all members - after adding 5.6 million new residents since 1980.
In the 1992 reapportionment of the federal House of Representatives, California gains seven seats, Florida four, and Texas three.
But exactly where will those new districts be put? How will the lines be drawn? Which party will gain the bigger political advantage? That's what the 1990 elections will decide.
The politicians in power in those three states can tilt the balance their way - creating districts with mixtures of voters who favor their parties - as Democrats did in California in the 1980s. That process, known as gerrymandering, sounds arcane, but it is life and death to politicians. Carefully crafted district lines can upset the political equation in the House, and give one party advantages.
At the moment, the eyes of Washington are riveted on those 14 new Sun Belt seats. Democrats currently dominate the House by a huge margin, 259 to 176. But they know those numbers are misleading. On many issues, such as defense and taxes, the ideological split between liberals and conservatives in the House can be just 20 to 30 votes. On conservative priorities like the MX missile or capital-gains tax reductions, Southern Democrats often cross party lines to join their Republican colleagues.
A loss of a dozen Democratic seats through redistricting, and an equal Republican gain, could shift some partisan issues toward the GOP and President Bush.
That's why Republicans from the president on down are putting highest priority on governorships. Although Democrats control the legislatures in most Sun Belt states, the GOP can exercise influence over drawing the new House district lines if they hold the governors' chairs.
Republicans are still angry over the 1981 redistricting, when Democrats called all the shots in California. Republican co-chairman Jeanie Austin told an RNC meeting this summer:
``The Democrats gerrymandered their slim 22-21 edge in [California's] congressional delegation into a 28-17 edge. We can't let the Democrats take through the gerrymander what they can't win at the ballot box.''
Ms. Austin reminded Republicans: ``Redistricting will determine the political map for the next 10 years.''
Thomas Hofeller, redistricting director for the RNC, says that with most population growth taking place in Republican areas, the party should expect major gains in 1992. But he warns: ``A lot of that gain can be taken away by gerrymandering.''
Despite their determination, however, GOP officials face the danger that they may fall well short of their goals this year. The outlook in some pivotal races for governor is mixed.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Bob Martinez remains an underdog, though the latest poll shows him in a 45-45 deadlock with Democrat Lawton Chiles.
In California, the lead has shifted back and forth between US Sen. Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate for governor, and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
Texas offers more encouragement to the GOP. Republican nominee Clayton Williams, a rancher and businessman, is cantering along comfortably ahead of Democrat Ann Richards, who seems to be riding a slow pony.
No race better illustrates the importance the GOP places on these contests, however, than Florida. A long line of famous Republicans - from Bush to former President Reagan - has rallied around Governor Martinez to raise campaign money.
Democrat Chiles is bracing for a $5 million Martinez media blitz in the closing weeks of this contest. One Martinez TV spot now airing notes that Chiles quit the US Senate in 1988, ``saying that spending was out of control. And that very year, he was rated the biggest spender there. Hard to understand. How well do we know Lawton Chiles?'' the ad asks.
Yet many Floridians predict they will have a new governor next year. They are convinced Martinez's bumpy record will bring him down.
Martinez came to office in 1987 promising no tax increases and an $800 million cut in the state budget. Instead, he teamed up with Democrats to pass a tax on services, including advertising and lawyers' fees. The public exploded. ``I made a mistake,'' the governor admitted. ``That mistake has cost me the confidence of the people of Florida.''
If Martinez pulls through, his media program may get most of the credit. Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Research, a polling company, says attacks on Chiles already appear to be working. As recently as August, Martinez had trailed Chiles by 37 percent to 44 percent. But in the latest Mason-Dixon survey, they have drawn even, with 10 percent of the voters still undecided.
In the long run, however, Mr. Ali says the advantage lies with Chiles. The governor is consistently below 50 percent in every survey - a bad sign for an officeholder, Ali observes, adding: ``Martinez is a very unpopular incumbent.... Chiles still has to be aggressive to win. ... He [needs to remind] people of the last four years. But we feel Chiles is in the driver's seat.''
Not all the key races are in the Sun Belt. Here's a brief look at some of them:
Norman Cummings, director of political operations at the RNC, says this is the first time since 1968 that the GOP candidate for governor was ahead on Labor Day. Republican George Voinovich, the former mayor of Cleveland, has consistently stayed in front of Democrat Anthony Celebrezze, the state attorney general.
Democrats are being hurt by the stain of public corruption that marked the current Democratic administration in Ohio. Mr. Celebrezze also came under criticism for reversing his long-espoused anti-abortion views.
Now Republican-held, Illinois could stay that way with GOP nominee Jim Edgar, but it's going to be close. Mr. Edgar, the Illinois secretary of state, will be threatened down to the wire by Democrat Neil Hartigan, the state attorney general. Experts call this a toss-up.
Both Illinois and Ohio illustrate the national importance of states that will lose seats in the House of Representatives in 1992. Both will drop two. But the party in control at each state house will draw the new district lines, and one party's candidates could be big losers.
Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton has big ambitions - he would like to be president. But first he must get reelected as governor of Arkansas, and that's proving more challenging than expected after four terms in office.
Mr. Clinton's Republican opponent, businessman Sheffield Nelson, has sprinkled the state with billboards reading, ``Ten Years is Enough!!'' That's a sentiment many voters share this year about all incumbents, not just Clinton, and the governor admits it is costing him as much as 8 percent of his support.
Democrats have an impressive record of toppling incumbent GOP governors in Nebraska. They did it in 1970 and again in 1982. This time, Republican Gov. Kay Orr is being challenged by former state insurance commissioner Ben Nelson. Governor Orr got into trouble early in her term when she inadvertently raised taxes during an overhaul of the tax system. Her popularity plunged, though it has recovered somewhat since 1988. Experts call the race a toss-up.