As the smoke from the 1990 primaries clears, the Democrats appear to be slightly better positioned than their Republican adversaries in the key gubernatorial races across the country.

In preparation for both 1991 congressional redistricting and the 1992 presidential contest, the key battlegrounds are in the major states, especially those that stand to gain or lose two or more congressional seats.

In the 36 gubernatorial contests that will be settled in November, 20 seats are held by Democrats and 16 by Republicans. At the start of the fall campaign, the Democrats appear likely to retain and perhaps strengthen this margin. But most important are the partisan prospects in the larger states that experienced significant population shifts in the last decade.

Republican control of the governor's mansion in the three Sun Belt "megastates" -- California, Florida and Texas -- is threatened in California and Florida, while the GOP nominee in Texas has a decided edge.

In California, former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein (D) is running even with Sen. Pete Wilson (R), and in Florida former senator Lawton Chiles (D) has mounted a formidable challenge to Gov. Bob Martinez (R). In Texas, oilman Clayton Williams (R) holds a strong -- some would say decisive -- lead over state Treasurer Ann Richards (D) in most polls. "I think we can stick a fork in that one," a Democrat closely associated with the Richards campaign said.

These three states are expected to pick up a total of 14 congressional districts as a result of the 1990 census. The Democrats already control each state's legislature and the only threat to that hegemony is an outside chance they could lose control of the Florida state Senate. Democratic gubernatorial victories in California and Florida would thus give the party total control over the drawing of new congressional and state legislative district lines, establishing the political landscape of those states for the rest of the century.

The politics of gubernatorial elections in the five northern states expected to lose at least two House seats each -- New York, down three, and Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, down two each -- are very complex.

Democrats hold the governor's mansion in all but Illinois. Ohio is the state most likely to have a partisan change, with George Voinovich, the Republican former mayor of Cleveland, holding a strong lead over Anthony Celebrezze, the Democratic state attorney general.

In terms of congressional redistricting, however, the Ohio legislature is split between a Republican Senate and Democratic House -- a situation that in the past in other states has often resulted in partisan compromise, reducing the importance of the governorship.

The same partisan split in the legislature applies to Michigan, where Republican State Senate Majority Leader John Engler has an outside chance of knocking off Gov. James J. Blanchard (D).

Conversely, in Illinois, the only state among these five in which the Democrats could wrest control of the governorship from the GOP, the Democrats control both branches of the legislature. In the close contest between Republican Secretary of State Jim Edgar and Democratic Attorney General Neil Hartigan to succeed retiring Gov. James R. Thompson, a Hartigan victory would give the Democrats absolute control over the redistricting process in the state.

In addition, in New York, the apparently collapsing candidacy of Republican Pierre A. Rinfret has increased the Democrats' long-shot chances of taking control of the state Senate with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) at the top of the ticket. Such a takeover would give the Democrats power to attempt to force the GOP to absorb most, if not all, of New York's three-seat congressional loss.

Democrats now hold the governorship in three of the five states with 1990 elections that are expected to gain or lose a House seat and the party is likely to hold its own in these states in November.

In Georgia, which is expected to gain a seat, Democratic Lt. Gov. Zell Miller is a strong favorite to defeat Johnny Isakson, Republican state House leader, in the contest to replace Gov. Joe Frank Harris (D). In Arizona, which also gains a seat, Terry Goddard (D), a former mayor of Phoenix, is currently favored to beat transplanted Maryland businessman J. Fife Symington III (R).

Voter anger at the Democratic administration of retiring Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis could turn the seat over to Republican William Weld, a former U.S. attorney. But the Democratic nominee, Boston University President John Silber, has been running a campaign designed to appeal to a discontented, angry electorate that will have one less congressman in 1992.

In traditionally Republican Kansas, which will also lose a seat, anger over large property tax increases resulting from a change in the state appraisal system threatens the reelection of Gov. Mike Hayden (R) and has boosted the chances of Democratic nominee Joan Finney, the state treasurer.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is favored to beat Democratic House Speaker Don Avenson in Iowa, a state that will have one less congressional seat in 1992. However, Democratic strength has been growing steadily over the past decade in Iowa and could produce an upset.

Looked at in regional terms, the most radical changes are likely to take place in New England, where there could be partisan shifts in five of six states, including the election of former senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R), running as an independent candidate for governor in Connecticut.

The tough race facing Florida's Martinez and the long-shot chance that Democrat Paul Hubbert could beat GOP Gov. Guy Hunt in Alabama threaten the Republican Party's four-state beachhead in the South. South Carolina's Carroll A. Campell Jr. (R) is almost guaranteed reelection, and North Carolina's James G. Martin (R) is in office until 1992.

Republican regional prospects are strongest in the industrial Midwest. In addition to possible GOP takeovers in Ohio and Michigan, Republican businessman Jon Grunseth could defeat Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich (D).

In the West, however, Democrats not only have a chance to win the governor's office in the most important state in the nation, California, but the party could extend its 5 to 3 advantage in the Mountain West with a victory in New Mexico, where former governor Bruce King (D) is currently favored to beat former state representative Frank Bond.

The one bright spot in the West for the GOP is Oregon, where GOP nominee David Frohnmayer, the state attorney general, has a lead over Barbara Roberts, the Democratic secretary of state, in the contest to replace outgoing Gov. Neil Goldschmidt (D).

During the past week, Republican chances to take the Alaska governorship out of Democratic hands took a nosedive. To the extreme consternation of the GOP, former governor Walter J. Hickel (R) entered the contest as an independent, severely undermining the chances of GOP nominee Arliss Sturgulewski to beat Democrat Tony Knowles, former Anchorage mayor.

In the nation's heartland, Democrats are mounting strong challenges in three states now run by Republicans. In addition to Kansas, the Oklahoma contest between 1986 Democratic nominee David Walters (D) and Republican U.S. Attorney Bill Price to succeed outgoing Gov. Henry Bellmon (R) is competitive, and Democrat Ben Nelson, an attorney, is giving Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr (R) a run for her money.

The GOP had long-shot hopes for Sheffield Nelson, a businessman, to beat Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D), who is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. To date, however, Clinton has held onto a relatively strong lead.