CONCORD, N.H. -- In their hour of political adversity, the three New England Republican governors seeking reelection this fall have developed a phenomenal ability to spot silver linings in the dark clouds of economic calamity hanging over their heads.

When New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg came before the fiscal committee of the legislature the other day to announce the need to fill another $53 million budget gap, he said, "We can take pride" that while "some of our sister states remain in fiscal chaos," New Hampshire was "the only state in New England to receive an award . . . {for} unequaled excellence in fiscal management."

Across the border in Maine a few weeks earlier, Gov. John R. "Jock" McKernan Jr. also had talked about his skill in dodging "fiscal chaos."

He cited not only the "billions of dollars in new taxes proposed in Massachusetts . . . {but} the $75 million budget deficit still predicted in New Hampshire." By contrast, McKernan bragged, "We did it" -- achieved a $3.6 million fiscal 1990 surplus. He ignored the realities that he had slashed spending, delayed scheduled tax cuts and used up virtually all his carry-over surplus in order to stay in the black.

Down the road in Rhode Island, the third of the embattled trio, Gov. Edward D. DiPrete, had to do what Gregg and McKernan bragged of avoiding: He raised a tax that everyone pays by adding a penny to the sales tax.

Did that make him apologize? No way. "Rhode Island," he said, "will emerge from the present recession in far better shape than its neighboring states. . . . Our AA bond rating from Standard and Poor's has just been reaffirmed."

The fiscal problems facing New England are no joke. Slumping defense, electronics, housing and construction industries have brought the 1980s regional boom to a sickening halt.

Three other New England governors eligible to run for reelection this year -- Democrats William A. O'Neill of Connecticut, Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts and Madeleine M. Kunin of Vermont -- decided to retire. The three Republicans who are running all have tough races.

McKernan trails Rep. Joseph E. Brennan (D-Maine), his predecessor as governor and now his opponent, in several polls. September primaries will determine the opponents DiPrete and Gregg face, but early polls make Gregg a slight favorite and DiPrete an underdog.

The biggest problem all three men face is that the economic slump was far more severe and fast-moving than any of them anticipated, leaving them to play catch-up with rising deficits. Their opponents, naturally, are blaming executive mismanagement rather than the underlying economic problems for the resulting confusion and cutbacks in state programs.

That's why visitors to Gregg's office here confront a plaque attesting that Financial World magazine last April recognized New Hampshire "as one of the top 15 states for its excellence in fiscal management." The magazine article rated the state 14th nationally (Rhode Island and Maine were 22nd and 23rd, respectively) and an anonymous observer, quoted in the article, said, "It's a state that doesn't do much for its citizens, but what it does it does very well."

That may not sound like unstinting praise, but when you're "poling in a swamp, not knowing where the bottom is," which is the way Gregg describes the budgeting process this past year, you take praise where you find it.

Unemployment has jumped to 6.1 percent, the highest since 1983, and tax collections have slumped accordingly. When John H. Sununu left the governorship in January 1989 to become White House chief of staff, he said there was a $10 million surplus; Gregg looked at the books and announced that after allowing state spending to grow "faster than any other governor in the country" during his six years in office, Sununu had walked away from a $13 million deficit.

In successive months, that figure was upped by stages to $180 million, but in February Gregg proudly announced, "We are the first state in the Northeast region to have resolved this problem."

The fix lasted only until August, however, despite the fact that Gregg not only had cut state payrolls and spending but signed increases in taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, property transfers and licenses of several kinds. Yet in May, when President Bush put taxes on the table for federal budget negotiations, Gregg was critical. "Republicans are meant to manage," he said. "They are not sent to say, 'Let's raise taxes when we get in tough economic times.' "

Democrats were quick to throw his words back at him, as they did with rosy promises from which McKernan and DiPrete also had to retreat. But the accusation of hypocrisy cuts both ways. In Maine and Rhode Island, Democrats control the legislatures. But no more than in New Hampshire, where they are a small minority, did they fight the governor's budget or propose major changes of their own. The Democratic challengers have been extremely reticent about spelling out their alternative fiscal plans.

Rather, they have let the incumbents founder. Nancy Perry summarized the Maine picture in the Portland Press-Herald: "In just one year, McKernan has moved from announcing that the economy was strong enough to generate $50 million in new revenues to support a 25 percent increase in state spending to announcing a $210 million shortfall."

McKernan said he relied on experts and the experts turned out to be wrong. "We were a year late in predicting the downturn," he told the Portland Chamber of Commerce in February. But by May he decided that "we've played it better than anyone else. . . . Unlike our New England neighbors, we did not impose new taxes to solve our budget woes."

Democrats were quick to point out, however, that McKernan had delayed scheduled property tax relief for elderly homeowners, postponed some business tax cuts and set back the starting date for a health insurance subsidy program for which earmarked beer and cigarette taxes already had been collected.

DiPrete was caught in an even worse bind, governing a tiny state, sandwiched between Connecticut and Massachusetts, where the economic slump forced retiring Democratic governors to boost taxes by more than $1 billion each. DiPrete held off for more than a year, while going through six rounds of budget cuts. Finally on May 22, he proposed a temporary one-cent increase in the sales tax, at the same time reminding voters of that AA bond rating.

"When we tell people about that AA bond rating, it's like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," DiPrete commented in an interview.

A Standard and Poor's spokesman said that the AA rating is mid-range for bond buyers -- one that Rhode Island shares with Vermont and Connecticut, among others. Fifteen states, including Maine and New Hampshire, have higher ratings; only 10 lower.

But when you're in DiPrete's bind, it's still a silver lining. Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.