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Governors' Races Turning Into Routs

Many incumbents' big leads raise concerns that voters may tune out early.

It's been a long hard day for Garry Mauro, the tireless Texas Democrat running for governor. He's walked door to door in three different East Texas cities, handed out 200 bumper stickers, and told anyone who would listen why they should vote for him this November - all the while being trailed by local TV crews.

It's a sweaty job, and even some of his friends wonder why he bothers. After all, the latest polls put him a staggering 53 points behind the popular incumbent, Gov. George W. Bush.

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"My own internal polls have me in a 20 point race," says an undaunted Mr. Mauro, sloshing around in a hotel bathtub during a phone interview before heading to a town meeting in Jasper.

That may be. But even if Mauro's figures are optimistic, he can take solace in the fact that he's not alone. Many gubernatorial challengers are finding that, in this year of swelling state revenues and short unemployment lines, incumbents are turning their races into routs.

Across the US, several governors are pushing out to 30, 40, and even 50 point leads. And while that may indicate that voters are, by and large, happy with state leaders, political analysts worry that an important part of democracy - debate of the issues - will be lost as voters tune out.

Among the other races that have become one-sided:

* In Wisconsin, three-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson has 59 percent support in polls, while Democratic challenger Ed Garvey has 21 percent.

* In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen has 60 percent support in the latest poll.

* In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee has 62 percent support, compared with 28 percent for Democrat Bill Bristol.

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Analysts are quick to point out that most of the runaway races - like these - involve incumbents who have distanced themselves from the pack. And the major reason for that is the economy, not only because it has been good for citizens, but also because it has been good for state coffers.

"All the governors get to hand out huge surpluses this year. It's hard not to like that," says Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report in Washington, who calls the 1998 election the "Don't worry, be happy election."

The challengers

Needless to say, this puts challengers - most of them Democrats - at a disadvantage. "When you look at this year's races, you have to give the Republicans the upper hand, because they've defied expectations," Ms. Duffy says. "In '94, Democrats predicted they would take their seats back. This year, not only are Democrats challenged to hold onto the seats they have, but they are also having difficulty coming up with the right kind of challengers to take on incumbents."

But a strong economy is only useful if you can take credit for it. In those states where incumbents are bowing out, such as California and Florida, the races are much more evenly matched, with a somewhat greater emphasis on issues. But in states where incumbents are running for reelection - whether in Alaska or Vermont, the polls indicate the voters seem happy with what they've got.

Of course, few politicians will agree that their future relies on the whims of the economy.

"So much of what Tommy Thompson does starts with a job and work," says Bob Wood, campaign manager for Governor Thompson. "I don't think the strong economy is happening by chance," he adds. "In part, it's driven by the strong economic policies that the Republican governors are initiating."

Meanwhile, up in New Hampshire, Democratic Governor Shaheen's supporters say her approval ratings show that voters in this largely Republican state agree with her efforts to improve education.

"Here in New Hampshire, there's a big Supreme Court decision forcing us to fix the way we fund education, and Jeanne has made that her big issue," says Bob Quinn, Shaheen's campaign manager, adding that Republican candidates have largely focused on trying to nullify the court's decision. "Most people in New Hampshire acknowledge that we need to do something about education, even if they can't agree on what that something is."

And in Arkansas, Governor Huckabee's lead is so large that his strategists have to struggle against complacency. Such an attitude is especially dangerous in a state where a majority of voters still identify themselves as Democrats.

"You've got to be careful that you actually bring out the voters on election day," says Rex Nelson, Huckabee's campaign manager. Fortunately for Huckabee, there is a very heated, and close, race for attorney general, along with a fight for the legislature. "Given those other races, conservative voters will turn out."

Bush's lead

In Texas, however, Bush's lead appears nearly unassailable.

"What we are seeing here is something we've never seen before," says Ty Meighan, the pollster who conducted the Texas poll showing Bush's support at 70 percent to Mauro's 17 percent, and earlier polls where the support was 67 percent for Bush and 21 percent for Mauro. "I thought Mauro would close the gap once he ran TV commercials [this spring], but our polls didn't show it."

Not helping Mauro's chances are the defections of several high-level Democrats. Other candidates in top races have refused to endorse Mauro, the current state land commissioner, and have kept their distance throughout the campaign. The cruelest blow came from Mauro's own mentor, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who called Mauro's run against Bush a "kamikaze mission" and threw his support behind Bush.

But for his part, Mauro says he's having the time of his life. He's getting his issues heard, and he's rebuilding the infrastructure of the party at the grass-roots level, one voter at a time.

"I think Bush is increasingly disengaged from the governor's race, and it's starting to hurt him," says Mauro. "He's making speeches where everything's hunky-dory, and that's not what the average person thinks."

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