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Governors' races start political season

Sunday, June 2, 2002

Open governor's seats in New Mexico and South Dakota, and an Alabama governor dogged by an ethics investigation, are among the top targets as seven states hold primaries this week for the fall elections.

Democrats hope to win in New Mexico with a high-profile candidate. Republicans are eyeing Democratic Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who also faces a primary challenge. Spending is breaking records for South Dakota's open governor's seat.

Tuesday is the first crowded primary of the political season, and it draws in competitive congressional races as well: Senate seats in New Mexico, New Jersey and South Dakota, and House races there and in Alabama and Iowa. Voters go to the polls in Montana and Mississippi, too.

The weak economy has left many governors vulnerable -- even in Iowa, where voters have a history of re-electing incumbents. First-term Democrat Tom Vilsack has no primary opponent, but a trio of Republicans are seeking the nomination to challenge him, including the chief of staff to a former governor.

Governors races are a top battleground this year, with 36 states choosing new leaders or deciding whether to keep the incumbent. Republicans hold a majority nationwide, and also more -- 12 -- of the open seats. Democrats hope to take advantage.

"Governors have a very critical role in developing public policy nationally, and the last several presidents we had have all been governors," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "It's certainly a stepping-stone."

An ethics tangle

In Alabama, however, the GOP sees an opportunity from Siegelman's ethics tangle. A joint state-federal grand jury is investigating the governor's personal finances after a series of disclosures suggested friends and supporters have tried to cash in on their connections to the administration.

Polls show little chance Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bishop could win the Democratic nomination, but even a respectable showing could damage the incumbent.

Polls have shown Siegelman might be vulnerable, trailing the top GOP candidate, Rep. Bob Riley, 42 percent to 35 percent in the latest newspaper poll. Riley faces Lt. Gov. Steve Windom and Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, for the GOP nomination.

There's also a rush toward open governors' seats in New Mexico and South Dakota, both now held by Republicans.

Former Clinton official Bill Richardson, who also represented New Mexico in Congress, faces no opposition for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in New Mexico, where he already has raised $3.4 million, more than either candidate spent overall in the 1998 race.

Hoping to keep the seat in Republican hands -- term-limits bar GOP Gov. Gary Johnson from another election -- are Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley and state Reps. John Sanchez and Rob Burpo.

In South Dakota, seven candidates are in the running after GOP Gov. Bill Janklow was forced out after 16 years by term limits.

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