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Politics 2002: Year of the tycoon?

Wealth and no political record to attack may be the ticket, as in Tuesday's California upset.

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With the first batch of primary elections of Campaign 2002 approaching, and Tuesday's upset in the California Republican contest, a particular type of candidate is emerging as dominant - especially in gubernatorial races: the wealthy political novice.

Bill Simon, a conservative investor who has never held elective office, handily beat former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (himself a wealthy businessman and one-time political novice) to win the California Republican gubernatorial nomination Tuesday.

In Texas, polls show the leading candidate in next week's Democratic gubernatorial primary is oil and banking tycoon Tony Sanchez, who also has never held elective office and has spent more of his own money than any candidate in the state's history.

This follows last fall's election in Virginia, where telecommunications millionaire Mark Warner won the governor's seat, and New York's mayoral contest, which went to billionaire financial services and media mogul Michael Bloomberg.

Throughout US history, rich Americans have sought office. But analysts say the number has spiked in the past decade - and more of them are winning.

While wealthy candidates used to appear more often in US Senate races, many are now focusing on gubernatorial ones, perhaps finding a more natural fit in an executive rather than legislative role. This year in particular, as states across the US struggle with budget woes, many candidates are touting their experience in business - rather than politics - as a strong selling point.

But it's also a matter of sheer cost. As the price of campaigns continues to rise, candidates who are willing to finance themselves and can dominate costly TV advertising have an increasing edge.

"Significant wealth is becoming a more important resource in political campaigns than it ever was before," says Jennifer Steen, a political scientist at Boston College. "To run for governor of a large state costs several million dollars. Even in California, where [campaign finance] regulations are very lax, it's really hard to raise that kind of money."

ANALYSTS say the budget shortfalls in many states add to the volatility in this year's gubernatorial races. Many incumbent governors, forced to slash programs and defer initiatives, may find themselves more vulnerable to challengers.

In general, this is bad news for Republicans, who are defending 23 of the 36 seats up for election.


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