BOSTON, NOV. 2 -- Even as New Englanders try to cope with a worsening recession and fret about the price of oil as winter approaches, the political climate for the region's incumbent politicians seems to be improving.
Initially, most politicians and their advisers believed that the regional economic recession, triggered by cutbacks in defense spending and a real estate bust and aggravated by rising fuel prices, would spell doom for most incumbents.
New England's three Democratic governors, Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, Madeline M. Kunin of Vermont and William A. O'Neill of Connecticut, chose not to seek another term.
The three Republican governors who ventured to run again are facing sharply different responses from the voters. In New Hampshire, Judd Gregg has a commanding lead over his Democratic challenger, while Rhode Island's Edward D. DiPrete is trailing badly, and Maine's John R. McKernan Jr. is in a tight race.
Gregg is finishing his first term after succeeding White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. In his two years as chief executive, Gregg has discovered that the state's finances were not nearly as sound as Sununu had maintained, yet Gregg has stood firm against any new taxes.
In New Hampshire, which refuses to impose a broad-based income or sales tax, opposition to taxes is an article of political faith. Gregg's Democratic challenger, Joseph Grandmaison, tried to break with orthodoxy by proposing that voters at least consider some new taxes, if only to relieve the burden of local property taxes, which are high and rising.
But Grandmaison, who managed Dukakis's initial gubernatorial campaign in 1974, has found himself in a predicament much like that faced by Dukakis two years ago in the presidential race. Gregg has succeeded in pinning the threat of higher taxes on the Democrat and leads by a 2 to 1 margin in recent polls.
In Maine, McKernan is believed to have overtaken his Democratic challenger, Rep. Joseph E. Brennan, the former governor who took McKernan's seat in Congress but now wants to retake the state capitol. McKernan had been trailing, but he fought back last month by attacking Brennan's record on prison-sentence commutations and by casting Brennan as a negative campaigner.
Another former governor, Republican Richard A. Snelling, is campaigning for his old job in Vermont. He and Democrat Peter Welsh, an attorney and former state Senate president, are competing for the open seat left by Kunin's retirement.
Snelling enjoyed a commanding lead in early surveys, but Democrats say Welsh has closed ground in recent weeks by mounting an aggressive advertising campaign that includes questions about Snelling's record.
The Vermont governor's race has been somewhat overshadowed, however, by an extraordinary House race, pitting incumbent first-term Republican Peter Smith against Bernie Sanders, the Independent Socialist former mayor of Burlington. Smith was leading until he became the first House member to endorse the ill-fated Sept. 30 federal budget-summit agreement. The latest polls show Smith trailing.
In Rhode Island, DiPrete is trailing badly in his rematch with Democrat Bruce Sundlun, a wealthy businessman who lost to DiPrete two years ago. DiPrete, seeking a fourth term, is weighed down by plunging approval ratings, rising unemployment and a state budget deficit.