CHICAGO (UPI) -- Governor's races in six or seven "must-win" states may determine the battlegrounds of the next presidential election in two years.
Of the 36 governors races that will be decided Nov. 5, Republicans focused on holding Florida, New York, Colorado and Ohio -- and on trying to win in Connecticut. Democrats concentrated on those same five states as well as Michigan and Illinois, which went to Al Gore in 2000. Polls within a few weeks of the election showed Democratic candidates running ahead in both key Midwest states.
Only 16 incumbent governors were up for re-election nationwide.
In Illinois, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll found Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., son-in-law of Chicago ward boss Dick Mell, leading Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan by 11 percent -- 47.5 percent to Ryan's 36.6 percent -- three weeks before the election.
Blagojevich is viewed as the Democrats' best chance to reclaim the governor's mansion in 26 years. A WBBM-Channel-2 Chicago poll had Blagojevich 19 points ahead of Ryan, the same margin as in a Sept. 27 poll. Ryan, who has trailed by double-digits for weeks, spent much of the campaign trying to disassociate himself from the scandal-tarred incumbent, Gov. George Ryan.
George Ryan, no relation, was investigated but not indicted in a driver's license-for-bribes probe that sent to prison dozens of state employees, including a childhood friend, who worked for him when he was secretary of state.
President George W. Bush made his seventh trip to Michigan on Columbus Day to campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick Posthumus, locked in a heated race with Democrat Jennifer Granholm. Despite a heavy barrage of attack ads, Granholm led 53 percent to 41 percent in an Oct. 7, WOOD-TV, Grand Rapids, poll.
Posthumus opposes abortion, except to save the life of a mother, while Granholm supports full abortion rights and says poor women should have access to abortion. Posthumus is against affirmative action and reparations to descendants of African-American slaves; Granholm favors both by providing equal opportunity and banning predatory lending and racial profiling. The candidates also differ on indexing state unemployment benefits to inflation and giving medical benefits to gay partners of state workers.
In Florida, President Bush scheduled two trips to the Sunshine State to stump for his brother, Jeb, 49, in a tough re-election fight with Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, 57, who upset former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.
Polls put McBride three points behind Bush in a state where Al Gore came within 537 votes of winning the presidency in the contested 2000 election.
"There are a whole lot of people in this country that view the 2004 election as starting in 2002 in Florida, and there are a whole lot of people that don't want my brother re-elected," Gov. Bush told USA Today.
Jeb Bush is struggling with a state budget crisis, headline-grabbing scandals about a child welfare agency that lost track of 400 foster children, and resentment from the fractious ballot recount decided in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans were less nervous about New York, Connecticut, Colorado and Ohio.
New York Gov. George Pataki was leading Democratic State Comptroller Carl McCall, 41 percent to 32 percent. A Newsday/NY poll showed 25 percent of Democrats supporting Pataki.
Connecticut Gov. John Rowland was leading Democrat Bill Curry, 49 percent to 31 percent, in a recent UConn poll, with 18 percent undecided.
A Rocky Mountain News/KCNC-TV, Denver, poll showed Republican Colorado Gov. Bill Owens with a 2-to-1 lead over Democratic businessman Rollie Heath, 54 percent to 26 percent.
Cleveland Democrat Tim Hagen hoped three gubernatorial debates would help him close Republican Gov. Bob Taft's commanding lead. Taft led 51 percent to 40 percent, with 7 percent undecided in an Oct. 7 poll by the Columbus Dispatch. Taft's deep pockets made it nearly impossible for Hagen to catch up. Taft had $8 million in August to Hagen's $375,000.
Democrats looked to retain or pick up several governorships.
Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was favored over Republican businessman Bill Simon Jr., in California -- in a humorless race in which the majority of voters said they wished there was a good third candidate.
The Los Angeles Times recommended Davis for re-election but called the contest "a long, dreary election campaign for governor."
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius led Republican State Treasurer Tim Shallenburger, 55 percent to 37 percent. In Massachusetts, Democratic State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien had a 42 percent to 30 percent lead over Republican Mitt Romney, president of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
Nashville's former Democratic Mayor Phil Bredesen led Rep. Van Hilleary 47 to 41 percent in Tennessee. In Pennsylvania, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell led Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher 57 to 36 percent in a state that gave up its elected governor to President Bush, when Tom Ridge became Homeland Security czar.
Incumbent Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack held a slim four-point lead over Republican lawyer Doug Gross in a WHO-TV, Des Moines, poll and Wisconsin Attorney General Jim Doyle led incumbent Republican Gov. Scott McCallum by eight points, 44 percent to 36 percent. McCallum succeeded Tommy Thompson who joined the Bush cabinet as secretary of health and human services.
The Minnesota governor's race was considered a toss-up.
Minnesota Republican Tim Pawlenty was dealt a blow when the state campaign finance board hit his campaign with a $100,000 fine and $500,000 in penalties after finding illegal collusion with the state Republican Party to produce television ads that cost $800,000.
Pawlenty trailed independent Tim Penny and was running even with Democrat Farm Labor candidate Roger Moe in a three-way race in a state that elected former professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura as governor. The finance board's ruling left Pawlenty with less than $700,000 for expenses until the election.
In other races:
-- Alaska: Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski was favored over Democratic Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer.
-- Arizona: Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., was in a tight race with Attorney General Janet Napolitano.
-- Arkansas: Gov. Mike Huckabee led Democrat Jimmie Lou Fisher.
-- Georgia: Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes led former Republican state Sen. Sonny Perdue.
-- Hawaii: Former Maui Mayor Republican Linda Lingle led Democrat Mazie Hirono.
-- Idaho: Gov. Dick Kempthorne was expected to win re-election over Democrat Jerry Brady.
-- Maine: Rep. John Baldacci led a field including Republican Peter Ciachette.
-- Nebraska: Republican Gov. Mike Johanns was favored to win re-election over Democrat Stormy Dean.
-- Nevada: Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn led Democrat Joe Neal.
-- New Hampshire: Republican Craig Benson led Democrat state Sen. Mark Fernald.
-- Oklahoma: Republican Steve Largent led Democrat Brad Henry.
-- Oregon: Democrat Ted Kulongo was favored over Republican Kevin Mannix.
-- Rhode Island: Democrat Myrth York led former teacher Don Carcierri.
-- South Carolina: Gov. Jim Hodges was favored over former GOP Congressman Mark Sanford.
-- South Dakota: Republican Mike Rounds led Democrat Jim Abbott.
-- Texas: Gov. Rick Perry was favored over Democratic businessman Tony Sanchez.
-- Vermont: A toss-up between Democrat Doug Racine and Republican Jim Douglas.
-- Wyoming: Former Republican State House Speaker Eli Bebout was favored over Democrat Dave Freudenthal.