With his Teddy Bear physique and informal demeanor, Tom Vilsack doesn't look like the type to upset the status quo.
But the Iowa state senator is determined to be the first Democrat in 30 years to sit in the governor's office in Des Moines - a move that, if successful, will break the Republican Party's longest hold on any governor's office in the United States.
"I've never been in a race where I haven't been behind and outspent, and I've never lost," says a confident Mr. Vilsack.
If he can pull off the win, he'll be bucking a national trend. Iowa is one of 11 open governor's seats in the country in a midterm election that already appears to be going the Republicans' way.
The GOP now controls 32 of the nation's 50 governor's offices. Twenty-four of them are up for reelection, and with the economy booming almost all the incumbents are expected to waltz to their election-night victory parties. That's put the focus on the open seats, and the other big prize that goes with the golden dome: redistricting.
With the 2000 census just around the corner, whichever party controls the governor's office can help redraw the nation's congressional map for the 2002 race. Thus, they'll also help determine who will control the US Congress well into the future. "While redistricting doesn't usually produce huge changes, it can give a party an advantage of 10 or 12 seats, which in the current climate is easily enough to make a majority," says political analyst William Schneider.
There are six open Republican seats where the incumbent either stepped down or was "term-limited" out, and five on the Democratic side.
The highest stakes race is in California, which will control the redistricting of about 1/8 of the House of Representatives. For the past 16 years, the biggest state has had a Republican governor.
Pundits are currently giving the edge to Democrat Gray Davis, the lieutenant governor who made a surprisingly strong showing in the primary. His running mate, Cruz Bustamante, is also expected to be a boon. "For the first time in California, Hispanics will have an opportunity to elect a statewide Latino officeholder," says Charles Todd of The Hotline, a political newsletter.
That will make it a more difficult race for the Republican, Attorney General Dan Lungren. But the party still puts California in the "winnable column."
They're also expecting to pick up at least one of the bigger Democratic states - Florida. Jeb Bush, son of the former president and brother of the current Texas governor, is running way ahead in the Sunshine State. After losing the same race four years ago on a staunchly conservative platform, he's back as a remade "compassionate conservative."
The Democrat, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, is considered lackluster and is coping with internal party squabbles.
Illinois and Ohio are two other big, open Republican seats that are hotly contested. There are also a few states where Democrats are giving Republican incumbents a tough run: Alabama, New Mexico, and Rhode Island. "The good news for us is the fact that we have the ability to win every race that we mentioned," says Clinton Key, head of the Republican Governors Association.
Nevada and Nebraska are open Democratic seats that are considered vulnerable. There are also two Democratic incumbents on the edge. Parris Glendening was drooping in the polls in Maryland, but recently recovered. In Hawaii, Ben Cayetano is taking heat for a recession brought on by Asia's financial woes. But the Democrats retain hope. "It's a very Democratic state, and we have to wait for everything to settle," says Katie Whelan, head of the Democratic Governors' Association.
IN Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucuses, pundits are also watching the gubernatorial contest for clues to 2000. Democrat Vilsack won his primary over a more conservative opponent by appealing to working families and union groups. That's seen as a good indication for more traditional Democratic presidential hopefuls, like House minority leader Richard Gephardt.
On the Republican side, former Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot is hoping to step into popular Gov. Terry Branstad's shoes. Mr. Lightfoot, a conservative, is making economic development his top priority. In political parlance, the race is "his to lose." "When the perception is that you're ahead, you're held to a different standard," says the relaxed, soft-spoken candidate.
Lightfoot stunned the GOP state convention by choosing as his running mate Almo Hawkins, an African-American woman who heads Iowa's Department of Human Rights. That's expected to give the GOP ticket an advantage in traditional urban Democratic areas.
But Lightfoot is identified with the more conservative wing of the party, and the Vilsack camp is painting him as an extremist. They point out that he voted against such things as education funding, the Clean Air Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act while in Congress.
"To the extent that Iowans reject extremism, that will have implications for the presidential race," contends Vilsack.
But in Iowa, as in the rest of the country, much of what happens in November may pivot on turnout. It's expected to be fairly low this year, which will make organization and getting out the vote key factors. "With the economy going as well as it is, sometimes it's even harder to get people to pay attention," says Mr. Key.