GOVERNORS do plenty of election scheming behind a bipartisan front

Tuesday, August 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Governors do their best to appear nonpartisan at their national meetings, but behind the scenes Democrats and Republicans are plotting to win elections.

Democrats say they are primed for a reversal of their disastrous election year in 1994 and could reclaim the advantage among governors.

Republicans currently have a 29-19 lead, while two governors are independent.

The National Governors' Association works to find common ground between the parties so it can work for the governors' common interests in Washington and elsewhere.

When the governors aren't smiling, shaking hands and finding consensus at these national meetings, they're secretly mapping out campaign strategy with others in their party.

Republican strategists spread out election maps to review each state as if plotting a battle campaign. Democrats got a private briefing from national Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe on his plan to build up the party's voter files and mailing addresses.

Democrats give the strong impression they're on the attack _ with high hopes for races in Virginia and New Jersey this year and for the 2002 races, when Republicans will be defending twice as many seats as Democrats.

``It's not a pretty picture for the Republicans,'' said Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is handling recruiting for the Democratic governors. ``Republicans are going to be on the defensive.''

Democrats see an analogy between next year and 1994, when the party out of power won many governor's elections at midterm of a first-term president. They think the struggling economy will cause Bush problems.

Republican Chairman Jim Gilmore sees a continuing dominance by GOP governors.

``Republican governors represent 70 percent of the population of the country, all of the big states except California,'' said Gilmore, the governor of Virginia. ``We think that's going to continue. The reason it's going to continue is the strong success of this president on energy, education, the patients' bill of rights and taxes.''

Some Republican governors acknowledge they've got their hands full with so many seats to defend in 2002 and because of past election patterns.

``History says the party in power in the White House doesn't do very well midterm, first term,'' said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, chairman of the Republican governors. ``But we've had an opportunity to spend some time recruiting a solid, credible group of men and women to run.''

Republicans think they have a good shot at winning back South Carolina, where Democrat Jim Hodges won in 1998 and Alabama, where Democrat Don Siegelman won. Both are Republican-leaning states.

And Republicans might have a good shot in New Hampshire, if Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen runs for the Senate.

Democratic strategists believe they can hold onto both of the Southern states, particularly South Carolina, where they feel Hodges is in a strong position.

Democrats hope to win open seats that were held by Republicans in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Rhode Island. And they think they've got a good shot at knocking off GOP incumbents in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Florida.

The Democrats have a delicate situation in Florida where former Attorney General Janet Reno is considering a run. She's very popular among Democrats, but polls suggest she could have a tough time running against Jeb Bush, younger brother of the president.

The Democrats acknowledge they could have problems keeping Democratic-held seats in Alaska and Hawaii. If Sen. Frank Murkowski seeks the Alaska governorship, they know he would be a huge favorite. And Republican Linda Lingle in Hawaii ran a very strong race four years ago and is considered a credible threat by Democrats in a state they usually dominate.

Democrats are pleased with their 2001 candidates, Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey in New Jersey, and businessman Mark Warner in Virginia.

Republicans counter that their candidates, Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, and former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley may be very competitive.

California Gov. Gray Davis, chairman of the Democratic governors, said party officials ``see these races as vehicles for demonstrating the Democratic Party is alive and well, so everybody is pulling out all the stops.''

McAuliffe promised the Democrats the national party would pour resources into those states and have already committed many workers and about $1 million in each state.

``Traditionally, governors have perceived the Democratic National Committee as a campaign committee for the presidential race,'' McAuliffe said. ``I don't think they have that perception now.''