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Fall Races for 36 Governor Seats Will Test Depth of Voter Ire Toward Incumbents

AS the nation's governors meet in Boston July 16 to 19, many of them will likely be discussing voter ire toward incumbents that may help bring a high turnover in statehouses after elections this fall.

In a crucial vote that could reveal the public mood, 36 states will pick chief executives this year. At least a third of them will be new, since the present governors are either prohibited from running or have decided not to. Along with the fresh faces, however, will be plenty of familiar ones. Some of the longest-serving governors cap a list of two-dozen incumbents who are up for reelection; many face the toughest battles of their careers.

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``It is an unusual year, in that you have people running for third or fourth terms,'' says Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster involved in several statehouse campaigns.

Most analysts expect the Democrats - who currently hold the edge in governorships by 29 to 19 - to lose some seats, partly because far more Democrats are up for reelection.

Few, however, expect the GOP to take over a majority of statehouses, as Maine Gov. John McKernan, head of the Republican Governors Association, predicted earlier this year.

HOLDING numerical control is more than a matter of party pride. The governor's mansion is vital to fund-raising and presidential-campaign planning. States in recent years have been prime laboratories for experimenting with reforms in health care, education, and welfare.

This year's gubernatorial elections will help define a new generation of leaders that might emerge nationally in 1996, particularly on the Republican side. The races will provide a reading on how voters stand on key issues.

``There are signs that voter dissatisfaction this year is still high,'' says William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ``The only question is, will they take it out on both parties or just the Democrats?''

Of particular interest will be races in the eight most populous states. The marquee matchup is in California, where a Democratic Senate incumbent is up for reelection. A victory by State Treasurer Kathleen Brown would give the Democrats the governorship as well as both US Senate seats.

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On the other hand, a win by the once all-but-doomed Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who, according to private polls, has now pulled ahead of Ms. Brown, would represent a comeback of Nixonian proportions.

In another big state, New York, four-term Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) faces his greatest challenge yet. While most analysts consider a Cuomo loss unlikely, the state would represent a major trophy for the Republicans and send a strong signal to the White House. But GOP hopes of gains may be more realistic in Texas and Florida.

Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D), the early favorite, is locked in a tough fight with George W. Bush, the former president's son. Another Bush son, Jeb, is a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in Florida, where Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) is considered vulnerable.

Pennsylvania's race will be molten hot, because the Senate seat up for grabs has no incumbent. GOP incumbents in three other ``big eight'' states are considered favorites for reelection, including Jim Edgar in Illinois, John Engler in Michigan, and George Voinovich in Ohio.

Topping the Democrats' target list are several GOP governors: Fife Symington in Arizona, who has been dogged by ethics questions; Arne Carlson in Minnesota, and four-term office seeker Terry Branstad in Iowa. Democrats also feel good about South Carolina and Maine.

Republicans like their chances in Democratically controlled Rhode Island and New Mexico. They believe they are strong in Hawaii, Maryland, Tennessee, Kansas, Nevada, and Colorado.

The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter, lists at least 14 states where races are currently considered tossups. ``I think [that] after the elections the partisan breakdown of the governors is going to be a lot closer to 50-50 than it is now,'' says Elizabeth Wilner, assistant editor. ``It is a very volatile year.''

GOP optimism for the fall is rooted in precedent as well as current calculations. In the last two midterm elections when a Democrat was president - 1978 and 1966 - the Republicans picked up six and eight gubernatorial seats, respectively.

Democrats have 21 sitting governors or open seats to defend this fall versus 13 for the Republicans. The GOP is coming off 1993 gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia. ``I think we will keep a majority,'' says Douglas Richardson of the Democratic Governors' Association. ``But there is going to be a lot of shuffling.''

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