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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gubernatorial Bids Race to Photo Finish

States: The campaigns have been overlooked by the media, but they are far from over. Seven of the 11 seats are hotly contested.

November 07, 2000|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — They have gotten only modest attention amid the fury of the presidential and congressional campaigns. Yet most of the 11 governors' seats up for grabs this year have remained hotly competitive all the way to election day.

Gubernatorial races in Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia are generally considered tossups. Those in Vermont, Delaware and North Carolina are competitive too.

Most experts have forecast that the elections will bring only a small shift in the balance of power among governors, who now consist of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and two independents. Seven of the 11 seats at stake in today's election are held by Democrats.

Yet the winners will have a lot of influence when state lawmakers--using data from the 2000 census--begin redrawing congressional and state legislative districts.

The most dramatic potential may lie in the Vermont race.

A backlash against the state's first-in-the-nation civil union law--granting marriage-like status to gay couples--helped bolster support for Republican Ruth Dwyer, a horse trainer and avowed opponent of gay rights. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, a pediatrician, signed the measure after it won strong legislative support.

But a seldom-used provision of the Vermont Constitution provides that if neither candidate gets 50% of the vote, the Legislature must choose the next governor. And since a half-dozen of the bill's supporters in the Legislature were knocked out in the primary, Dean could be vulnerable.

In North Dakota, the race has been altered since Democratic Atty. Gen. Heidi Heitcamp, who is running against Republican banker John Hoeven, announced in September that she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Heitcamp has insisted she is healthy enough to serve as governor and wants to talk only about the issues.

Since her announcement, most of her media coverage has been sympathetic, and that has made it difficult for Hoeven to attack her, says the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

Also too close to call is Montana, where Republican Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, a former Olympic speedskater, is battling Democrat Mark O'Keefe, the state auditor, in a race centered on government spending. O'Keefe has put up $2.2 million of his own money.

Candidates in Missouri are locked in a battle to succeed Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash last month while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. Neither Democratic state Treasurer Bob Holden nor U.S. Rep. James M. Talent, a Republican, is considered highly charismatic, and despite ample spending, the race has remained a standoff.

In West Virginia, Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood is trying to hold off Democratic Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. Underwood has appeared vulnerable because of the state's economic problems.

Favored for reelection are three incumbents: Democrats Frank L. O'Bannon in Indiana and Gary Locke in Washington, and Republican Mike Leavitt in Utah.

New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, appeared vulnerable for much of the race, but lately has carved out more of a margin over former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey. In Delaware, Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner leads Republican John Burris in a race to succeed Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper.

In North Carolina, Republican Richard Vinroot and Democrat Mike Easley are competing for the seat held by Democrat James B. Hunt Jr.

Women are major-party candidates in five of the 11 states. Three of those states, Montana, Delaware and North Dakota, have never had a female governor.

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Times staff writer Elizabeth Mehren in Boston contributed to this story.

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