Democrats picked up a modest number of governorships in Tuesday's elections, prompting both political parties to claim vindication yesterday in their approaches to state government, and igniting debate over which party was in a stronger position for the 2004 presidential election.

With only the outcome of the close gubernatorial contest in Alabama still unsettled late yesterday, Democrats were certain to hold the top posts in 24 or 25 states, reflecting the evenly divided electorate across the country.

The results would amount to a net gain of three or four governorships for the Democrats and a net loss of one or two for the GOP. There are currently two independent governors, in Maine and Minnesota, but neither sought reelection Tuesday.

Two of the last gubernatorial contests to be decided yesterday were in Oregon, where Democrat Ted Kulongoski won a narrow victory over Republican Kevin L. Mannix, and in Arizona, where Democratic Attorney General Janet Napolitano defeated her Republican rival, former U.S. House member Matt Salmon.

The situation in Alabama remained contentious. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman and Republican challenger Bob Riley both claimed victory and moved to assume the reins of power. Siegelman spoke with state lawmakers about calling a special session of the legislature, and Riley appointed a chairman for his transition team.

Complete but unofficial returns showed Riley clinging to a small lead over Siegelman amid a dispute about vote totals from one county.

In Vermont, neither major party candidate received 50 percent of the vote. Under state law, that left it up to the legislature to declare a winner. But yesterday, Democrat Doug Racine, who trailed Republican Jim Douglas by about 6,000 votes, conceded defeat, clearing the way for Douglas to assume office.

Reviewing the results, both Democrats and Republicans said they had reasons to celebrate.

"We did great," said outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a former chairman of the Democratic Governors Association who is exploring a run for president in 2004. Dean cited the net pickup of governorships by Democrats and victories in conservative and traditionally Republican bastions such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

"Democrats can win everywhere if you stick to your guns with core Democratic values and aren't cowed by the right wing," Dean said. "Democrats can win in fairly conservative states if we stick to our core message."

But Republicans argued that some Democratic gains were to be expected because the GOP was defending a large number of governor's posts captured in previous elections. Of the 27 governorships currently held by Republicans, 23 were at stake Tuesday. Democrats had to defend only 11 of their current 21 governorships. In several of those races, the incumbent governor was barred by term limits from running.

"It was a great night for Republican governors. Predictions of our death were greatly exaggerated," said Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Both parties claimed they had strengthened their positions for the 2004 presidential election by gaining or holding onto governorships in key states.

The Democrats pointed to their takeover of the governor's office in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, traditional battleground states in presidential elections. The Democrats also held onto the nation's largest electoral college prize when California Gov. Gray Davis defeated Republican challenger Bill Simon.

"These were big prizes," said Democratic consultant David Axelrod. "They are disproportionately important. It can do nothing but help a Democratic [presidential] nominee."

But Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) said that Republicans remained in the governor's office in five of the 10 most populous states. Rowland noted that the GOP had successfully defended some of its most important gubernatorial territory.

"We held on to Texas, and New York we won big," Rowland said. "In Florida, there was a national effort to oust Jeb Bush that failed. We made huge inroads in getting back the southern Republican strongholds. I think, all in all, that we built a strong, solid base for the presidential election."

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Democrats "are probably a little bit better off than they were for 2004" as a result of Tuesday's gubernatorial elections. But he added that "Republicans had many more vulnerable governor's seats, and they came through pretty well. It is part of an overall really good night for the Republicans. It may be less obvious, but it still plays into the overall strength of the Republican performance."

The newly elected governors will inherit what Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, called "the worst [fiscal] situation since the Second World War," as state tax receipts continue to decline while health care and other costs skyrocket. Faltering economies appeared to be a major factor in producing a political upheaval in several states, where decades-long control of the governor's office by one party abruptly ended.

That happened in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, where Democrats will take over, and in Maryland, Georgia and Hawaii, where Republicans were the winners. In such economic circumstances, Owens said, challengers proclaiming "it's time for a change" had a "very powerful theme" that found receptive audiences.

Axelrod said that because of economic conditions, "incumbency was a tremendous burden in this election" in gubernatorial races. "I just think many of these governors, most of them, are inheriting staggering problems that's going to make getting elected look like a day at the beach," he said.

Losses by Maryland Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Georgia Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes to former Republican state senator George E. "Sonny" Perdue were particularly stinging to the Democrats. Dean called those two outcomes "shockers" and "very disappointing."

The defeats of Townsend and Massachusetts state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, two Democrats running in overwhelmingly Democratic states, were also a setback for hopes that female candidates would make major gains in this year's gubernatorial elections. There are currently five women governors. Next year there will be six: four who won Tuesday and holdovers Ruth Ann Minner (D) in Delaware and Judy Martz (R) in Montana.

In Hawaii, Linda Lingle was the only Republican woman elected governor Tuesday, defeating Democrat Mazie Hirono in the only all-woman gubernatorial contest between major party candidates.

Democrats Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas and Jennifer Granholm in Michigan also won their races. But six other Democratic women, including Townsend and O'Brien, were defeated.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said she was "mildly disappointed" that more women were not victorious but "pleased that there were so many strong women candidates running. It's a slow process."

Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov.-elect Michael Steele clasp hands in Baltimore after their Tuesday triumph made them the first Republicans to gain the statehouse since the 1960s. Ehrlich also was one of several challengers who profited politically from his state's financial straits. Michigan Gov-elect Jennifer Granholm (D) gives a thumbs-up, flanked by her husband Dan Mulhern and daughters Kathryn and Cecilia, as she enters victory party Tuesday.