A HOTLY contested, three-way horse race is out of the gates here that could produce the state's first female governor, and only the second Republican chief executive since the 1950s.
After eliminating three other candidates in a Sept. 17 primary, Patricia Saiki, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1987 to 1991, now faces Lt. Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, and former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi in a November general election.
In the Democratic primary, Mr. Cayetano defeated state health director Jack Lewin and four other contenders by taking 57 percent of the vote.
Mr. Fasi, who has been both a Republican and Democrat as Honolulu mayor for 22 years until he resigned to campaign, is running under the mantle of a newly formed party, the Best Party. Incumbent Gov. John Waihee (D) is prevented by state law from seeking a third term.
``Whether or not Cayetano can consolidate the old Democratic machine one more time or whether the people are finally turned off [with the Democrats] is what's at stake,'' says Phyllis Turnbull, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii.
Ms. Saiki led the polls by a wide margin all year until Cayetano closed the gap by 29 percentage points to near even just before the primary vote. The most recent polls show Cayetano and Saiki virtually even at 30 percent of registered voters with Fasi near 19 percent. About 21 percent of those surveyed were undecided.
Observers say the top issues in the governor's race are the economy, government corruption, education, land and development issues, and crime.
Because Democrats have primarily been in power during a period when Hawaii's cost of living has risen to 39 percent higher than that of the average US metropolis, many observers here think this could be the Republican's year.
Welfare rolls have swelled, and homelessness has increased dramatically while the state's No.1 industry, tourism, has fallen off four straight years, before a slight rebound this summer.
``Even those within the Democratic Party are beginning to realize the system is not working any longer,'' says Daryl Huff, chief political analyst for KITV, Honolulu.
A massive string of reforms on both spending and ethics included the replacement last year of the state Democratic chairman, Dennis O'Connor.
``It is widely believed the current machine is either fat, or corrupt,'' adds Mr. Huff. ``The bureaucracy is being seen as too powerful with money flowing in suspicious ways too often.''
In addition to governors, the Hawaiian Congressional delegation and statehouse have been overwhelming Democratic since post-war party workers wrested the state from Republican control just before statehood in 1959.
But that generation of early activists, who built their power base on the strength of unions and Americans of Japanese ancestry, is slowly retiring or dying off.
The question is whether the Republican party can win over that power base. Today, with only three Republicans in the state Senate and four in the 51-member House, the party is regularly described as barely alive.
At her recent endorsement for governor by the Hawaii Business Industry Association, Saiki, a Japanese-American, told members and the press that her number-one priority is jobs. ``Creating employment is what we are all about ... to get people into jobs that pay well, that offer career opportunity ... to get our economy moving again.''
A linch-pin of that strategy is a reform of the state's costly workers' compensation insurance program. Saiki has also dedicated much of her campaign rhetoric to reversing the state's slide in education.
Ben Cayetano was elected the first lieutenant governor of Filipino ancestry in 1986 and 1990 after serving two terms each in the state House and Senate. He has also led a fight for educational reform. Though he is known as a political maverick who has broken with incumbent Gov. Waihee on several key issues such as mass transit and state Supreme Court appointments, Cayetano is still viewed as closely tied to Waihee in a year when most voters want change.
The race may depend on how many party faithful defect from both parties to Fasi, whose backers have managed to raise a reported $4 million to $5 million dollars, nearly double the war chests of Cayetano and Saiki. Considered the best known politician on Oahu, where 85 percent of Hawaii's voters reside, Fasi could even pull off an upset.
``Fasi has a huge political organization and lots of grudges to make good on,'' says Jim McCoy, a political analyst. ``This will be an incredible race to watch.''
Fasi has already run for governor three times and lost, first as a Democrat, then as an independent, and then as a Republican. After winning his last two terms as Honolulu mayor on a GOP ticket, the party turned its back on him when it considered Saiki more electable.
Running on a platform of being ``for the little guy and getting things done,'' Fasi has a good record of achievement as mayor in bringing mass transit and redevelopment of Waikiki and downtown. But his administration has been tainted by accusations of rewarding some campaign contributors with contracts.