San Diego Union-Tribune

August 8, 2001

Davis wears the party hat at governors confab

By TOBY ECKERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- It's not just his own impending re-election campaign that has Gov. Gray Davis busy on the political circuit these days.

As chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, Davis has a stake in high-profile gubernatorial elections this year in Virginia and New Jersey. Davis and other Democrats say the races will be barometers of the party's strength in an otherwise lackluster political year.

Moreover, they will set the stage for 2002, when the races for 36
governorships will be decided.

"These races are the only way Democrats can demonstrate progress in an off-year election," Davis said Monday.

"There are no competing congressional or senatorial races. So we'll have the full attention of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) and the full attention of Democratic governors not otherwise up for election."

The races dominated the political chatter at the National Governors
Association conference here, which ended yesterday. They are viewed as a test of strength for the two major parties.

In New Jersey, traditionally a moderate state, conservative Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler won the Republican primary. He will oppose Democrat Jim McGreevey, mayor of Woodbridge. In Virginia, a state dominated by Republicans in recent years, GOP Attorney General Mark Earley is facing off against Democratic businessman Mark Warner.

"We'll be able to road test a lot of themes," said Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is in charge of candidate recruitment for the Democratic Governors' Association.

"They're very competitive and they're going to be very expensive," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Indeed, the first order of business for Davis was a fund-raiser for the races. On Friday, before the governors conference got under way, the Democratic Governors' Association raised $250,000 at a fete held by Don Sweitzer, a local business executive and longtime Democratic operative.

Davis said he has not focused much on the 2002 races since they will become the responsibility of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening when he takes over the Democratic Governors' Association in the coming year.

How the Democrats fare in New Jersey and Virginia this year could have longer-term implications for Davis. His rise to chairman inevitably invited comparisons to other Democratic governors -- notably Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts -- who used the post as a
ticket punch on the way to a presidential bid.

Davis, who is adamant about being a moderate, was coy when asked about any presidential ambitions he might harbor.

"I like to kid people and say that I've moderated my ambitions. I'm just trying to keep the lights on," he quipped, referring to his grappling with the state's power crisis.

Fellow Democrats said one of the assets Davis brought to the job of chairman is his track record of prodigious fund raising. Davis has brought in $30 million for his re-election campaign next year.

Republicans now dominate the gubernatorial scene. They hold 29
governorships, compared with 19 for the Democrats. Two are held by independents.

Democrats see an opportunity to turn the tide in 2002.

Far more Republican governorships -- 23 compared with 11 for the
Democrats -- are in play. And, largely because of term limits, only 13 of the races will involve Republican incumbents, putting the GOP at a disadvantage since it is usually much easier to re-elect incumbents.

"There's just a lot of Democratic opportunities," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst.

Ridge acknowledged the Republicans have their work cut out. He noted that during non-presidential election years "the party in the White House really doesn't do very well historically."

But Republicans also have an opportunity to pick up some governorships currently held by Democrats, notably in GOP-leaning Alabama, Alaska and New Hampshire, Rothenberg said.

Races in Georgia and South Carolina also will be a test of Democratic staying power in a region that has trended Republican.