Battleground-state governors of both parties see the presidential election as an extremely close battle, likely to be dominated by economic issues.
Interviews with a number of those attending the annual midwinter meeting in Washington of the National Governors Association found agreement that the pocketbook issues of jobs and taxes are likely to determine whether President Bush can win a second term.
West Virginia Gov. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D), right, with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), said that President Bush is "not as strong as he was last time."
(Evan Vucci -- AP)
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D), whose state Al Gore carried by fewer than 7,000 votes in 2000, said chronically high unemployment in Oregon has made voters "very receptive to a no-tax message." Still smarting from voters' rejection of a bipartisan revenue-raising plan that opponents took to a referendum, Kulongoski said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the likely Democratic nominee, would "have a hard sell" in Oregon, if Bush campaigns as the man who relieved the tax burden for all Americans.
It could be Bush who has the hard sell in Nevada, a state he won with exactly 50 percent of the vote. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) said the president "needs to get back into Nevada" to repair some of the damage done to his cause when he approved a low-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, over the strenuous objection of Nevadans of both parties.
An improving local economy there will help Bush, Guinn said, but he added that Democrats were "galvanized" by Kerry's visit earlier this month for the delegate-selection caucuses.
Ironically, one of the few Republicans to argue that Kerry, if nominated, would be a relatively easy opponent for Bush was the governor of Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. Although acknowledging that the 19-year Senate veteran is "well-spoken and very bright, a skilled debater, with a record of distinguished service in Vietnam," Romney insisted that anyone "would be hard-pressed to say he has been a distinguished senator."
"What has John Kerry ever fought for and won for Massachusetts or the nation?" Romney asked.
Romney, who ran unsuccessfully against Kerry's colleague Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) before winning the governorship, suggested that businesses and individuals who need help in Washington turn first to Kennedy. Kerry, he said, "fought well in the jungles of Vietnam, but in the jungles of Congress, I haven't seen it."
Nonetheless, in most of the swing states, the governors expect the race to be close -- whether Kerry or Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is at the top of the Democratic ticket.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), whose state went to Bush with 51 percent of the vote, said Bush "will have to fight hard to win it again." The Hispanic vote, which is steadily growing, tilts to the Democrats, she said, and Kerry's Vietnam War record "is good for Arizona, which has a big military presence and lots of retired veterans." But Kerry's criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement may not play well. "In our state," Napolitano said, "NAFTA has helped the economy."
West Virginia, a traditionally Democratic state that Bush won with 52 percent, is another place where Kerry's war record may stand him in good stead, according to the state's Democratic governor. "He can legitimately say, 'I carried an assault weapon,' and I hunt," Gov. Robert E. Wise Jr. said. "That could go a long way toward offsetting the gun issue," which Bush used effectively against Gore. That, plus an economy that "is not out of the woods yet," makes Bush "not as strong as he was last time," Wise said.
In Minnesota, which Gore carried with 48 percent of the vote, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said the jobs issue looms as the biggest barrier to Bush's hope of adding the state to his column. "The president can win it if he works at it, assuming Iraq doesn't blow up," Pawlenty said. He was part of a gubernatorial delegation to Iraq and returned convinced that progress was being made but that a July 1 deadline for electing an Iraqi government would not hold.
The economy in his state is improving, Pawlenty said, but he added, "A lot of restructuring is taking place, especially in the manufacturing sector, and the disruption is frustrating for a lot of middle-class folks. There's an anxiety in Middle America. Wages are not going up, but health care costs are rising."
"Kerry presents a challenge," Pawlenty said, "because he appeals to the Democratic base. But he's a classic liberal, and that does not have much appeal anymore for our independents."
Although all of these states are judged by their governors to be likely battlegrounds, two others that were closely contested in 2000 may be moving into the safer category -- though in opposite directions.
Gore won Michigan with 51 percent of the vote. But after years of massive job layoffs in its heavy-industry economy, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), a Kerry supporter, said Bush will find an even less receptive climate this year. "He'd have to move hard and fast to correct the trade policies that have cost us businesses and jobs," she said of the president, "and I see no sign of his doing that. If the status quo remains, he can't win Michigan."
Granholm said that initially the auto industry "was very distrustful of Kerry" because of his strong environmental stands, but that it has been impressed by the agenda for manufacturing he laid out during the Michigan caucus campaign. "Longtime champions of the auto industry like Carl Levin, John Dingell and I would not have endorsed him, without very specific pledges of how he will help our state regain these jobs," Granholm said, naming the state's senior senator and longest-serving House member.
Arkansas, which Bush carried with 51 percent, may be easier this time for the president, said Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). More than two of every five members of the Arkansas National Guard have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and support for the troops translates into support for the commander in chief, Huckabee said. Even if Kerry were to choose retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark as his running mate, it would not put Arkansas into play, Huckabee said. "The only thing he has in common with the South is his Little Rock address," the governor said.