WASHINGTON New Jersey and Virginia are the only states with governors elections this year, and Republicans have cause to be nervous about both races.
Each state has a Republican governor who is not running for re-election. And in both states the Democratic candidates were leading in the polls by double digits heading into the Labor Day weekend.
Beyond those similarities, the two races couldnt be more different than blue and red.
Democrat Al Gore won New Jersey by 16 percentage points in last years presidential election, and the state was marked blue on many post-election maps to signify the Democratic win. Republican George W. Bush carried Virginia by nine points and it was marked red.
New Jersey and Virginia are fundamentally different, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. New Jersey has a large Democratic voter base and Virginia is the mirror opposite.
In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevey had a 19-point lead over Republican Bret Schundler in two recent polls. In Virginia, Democrat Mark Warner had a lead of 14 points over Republican Mark Earley.
A lead of 14 points for a Democrat in Virginia can easily melt away by November, Sabato said.
Schundler aides say there is time for him to broaden his appeal by contrasting his mayoral record with McGreeveys and talking about issues like his opposition to highway tolls.
McGreevey, the mayor of Woodbridge, N.J., expects to campaign with Gore in September, and Schundlers aides say they hope President Bush will be coming to the state for the GOP mayor of Jersey City.
Virginia will offer no such echoes of the 2000 presidential campaign, even though the president will appear there for Earley next month.
Democrats believe Warner has a financial advantage over Earley of 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 now after Warner raised as much as $9 million from 12,000 donors. The Warner campaign has been advertising throughout the summer. His aides expect the GOP will pour resources and surrogates into the state.
I dont have any plans to bring in lots of outsiders, said Warner, a 46-year-old, self-made multimillionaire. This is going to be a campaign on Virginia values ... and well let the chips fall where they may come November.
Warner has visited all parts of the state repeatedly for more than a year and a half, has laid out issue positions on issues from education to early childhood care to rural development. His campaign has its own bluegrass tune and he has courted everyone from NASCAR fans to hunters to high-tech businessmen. He talks about a need to clean up the fiscal mess in Richmond after state government was entangled in a budget impasse this year.
Earley, a 47-year-old former state lawmaker and attorney general, has been promoting his support for tax cuts, improvements in education and his accomplishments during his long service in Virginia government.
Earley, who appeared in northern Virginia with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge this week, says hes not worried about the polls. Ridge emphasized that Earley would continue a tradition of GOP leadership in the state.
We feel real good about where we are, Earley said. We wanted to wait until September and October when people were paying attention (to buy television time). Well draw a contrast between our experience and our opponents lack of experience.
National Democrats are optimistic.
Heading into the Labor Day weekend, we could not ask to be in a better position, said California Gov. Gray Davis, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. We know these races will be tough, but we feel very good about our prospects in New Jersey and Virginia.
While some Republicans privately concede they have their hands full, party leaders are more optimistic publicly.
Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, chairman of the Republican National Committee, says he likes Republicans chances in both states and says the GOP will help in both races. Schundlers appeal in New Jersey will grow through the fall as he becomes better known, Gilmore said. The governor was especially critical of Warner for his sometimes folksy approach to campaigning in areas like southwest Virginia.
Mark Warner in bib overalls playing the banjo is pretty ridiculous and a little insulting to the people of southwest Virginia, Gilmore said. These are sophisticated people who wont fall for it.
Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.
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