This fall's governors' races could leave gaping holes in President Reagan's reelection safety net for 1984.
Conventional wisdom holds that the party holding the governor's mansion in closely contested states can prove crucial to a bid for the White House. If so, Mr. Reagan would be in trouble from a stiff challenge in 1984.
The Republicans' current majority among the governorships of the major electoral states - six of the biggest 10 - appears likely to be broken. According to a Monitor survey of the 36 governors' races, at the moment the Democrats appear likely to take majority control (6 to 4) of the key electoral state governorships - with a possible chance of controlling 7 of the 10, and an outside chance of 8. Overall, Democrats could increase their 20-to-16 lead in governorships to more than 2 to 1.
The Republicans counter that modern media politics has lessened a governor's political clout. Further, an even split in the current close races could leave them not too badly off for 1984.
But GOP officials admit they would feel far more comfortable if they weren't running behind or even in the three presidential swing states they now control - Texas, Illinois, and Ohio. They also appear likely to lose Michigan's governorship.
Only in New Jersey, where there is no November race, and Pennsylvania, where Gov. Richard Thornburgh sits secure for this fall, are the Republicans sure of big-state seats.
The Democrats' big risk is California - a race rated as near even by California pollster Mervin Field as any he's seen.
In New York, professionals in both parties see the Democrats holding the Albany mansion to be vacated by Gov. Hugh L. Carey - provided the Democratic nomination face-off between New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo is settled amicably enough after the September primary.
In the two remaining big 10 states controlled by Democrats, North Carolina's Gov. Jim Hunt does not face reelection this year, and Florida's Gov. Bob Graham looks fairly secure against a challenge by Rep. L. A. (Skip) Bafalis.
The governors' races could prove the most colorful as well as the most crucial this fall.
The Texas face-off between Gov. William P. Clements Jr. and Democratic Attorney General Mark White could be decided by fractions of a percentage point, party professionals say. Both men are tough campaigners. It will be a big money, big stakes race in the Texas tradition.
Illinois, too, is reverting to form for its 1982 race between Republican Gov. James Thompson and former Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III.
Mr. Thompson won the governorship in 1976 by the biggest margin in Illinois history - and in the process lifted President Ford over Jimmy Carter in that state.
Now Thompson is in trouble. The state's budget woes are taxing his stamina. Typical of his plight, he has had to ask the 67,000 state employees to take five-day furloughs without pay. Thompson's gift-buying, a setback in his wife's bid to become a federal judge, add to his burden.
A clear Sunbelt-frost belt line appears to run through the governorship contests. The economy and recession appear to be major factors in the decisions of popular Republican Govs. William G. Milliken of Michigan and Lee Sherman Dreyfus of Wisconsin to retire. Three other Republican Midwestern governors are leaving office - Iowa's Robert Ray still in good standing, Minnesota's Albert H. Quie with wide disapproval, and Ohio's James A. Rhodes because by law he cannot run again.
Republicans control eight of the nine Midwest governorships contested this fall. But they look secure in only two - Nebraska, and South Dakota.
In the East, the outcome most likely will leave the Democrats in control of the same six of eight governorships.
New Hampshire's Democratic incumbent Hugh Gallen could face any of a half-dozen Republicans. Publisher Meldrim Thomson Jr. threatens to enter as an independent if Louis D'Allesandro or another GOP moderate wins the Sept. 14 primary. A Thomson entry would hand the race to the Democrats, experts in both parties agree.
In Massachusetts, Republicans are watching to see how much damage Democratic rivals Michael Dukakis and Edward King, a former governor and current governor, do to each other.
The South could hold a surprise: defeat for former Gov. George C. Wallace, currently the Democratic front-runner, in his attempt to succeed incumbent Forrest James Jr. Mr. Wallace has been running only a few points ahead of Rep. Ronnie Flippo for the Democratic nomination, and the Republicans think they have an even chance to carry the state.
What the Republicans might gain in Alabama they appear sure to lose in Arkansas, where former Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton seems likely to unseat incumbent Frank White.
Depending on the tossup Texas outcome, Democrats are expected to gain or lose a seat in the nine Southern races, where they now hold a 6-to-3 edge over Republicans.
In the West, the Republicans are weak in three states they now hold, Alaska, Nevada, and Oregon. The Democrats are in trouble in two, California and Idaho.
1982 governors races
Democratic incumbent seats Republican incumbent seats
Dem. GOP Dem. GOP rating rating rating rating East East Conn. O'Neill 1.5 1 Pa. Thornburgh 2 2 Maine Brennan 2 1.5Vt. Snelling 1.5 2 Mass. King 1 2 N.H. Gallen 1.5 1Midwest N.Y. Car ey 1 1 R.I. Garrahy 2 1.5Ill. Thompsom -0.5 -1 Iowa Ray 0.5 1.5 Midwest Mich. Milliken -1 -1 Minn. Quie -1.5 -2 Kan. Carlin 0.5 0Neb. Thone 0.5 1.5 West S.D. Janklow 2 2 Wisc. Dreyfus -0.5 -1 Ariz. Ba bbitt 2 1.5 Calif. Brown 0.5 -0.5 Colo. Lamm 2 " Hawaii Ariyoshi 0.5 1.5Alaska Hammond -0.5 0 Idaho Evans 0. 5 0Nev. List -0.5 -1 N.M. King 2 1Ore. Atiyeh -0.5 -1 Wyo. Herschler 0.5 2 South South Ark. White -1 -1.5 Ala. James 1 0Tenn. Alexander 2 1.5 Fla. Graham 1.5 1Texas Clements -1 1 Ga. Busbee 1 2 Md. Hughes 2 1.5 Okla. Nigh 1.5 2 S.C. Riley 2 2
Rating system: 2 -- strong for incumbent party, 1 -- leaning toward incumbent party, 0 -- even, -- 1 -- in doubt, -- 2 -- likley loss.