- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

Open governor's seats in New Mexico and South Dakota, and an Alabama governor dogged by an ethics investigation, are among the top targets as seven states hold primaries this week for the fall elections.
Democrats hope to win in New Mexico with a high-profile candidate. Republicans are eyeing Democratic Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who also faces a primary challenge. Spending is breaking records for South Dakota's open governor's seat.
Tuesday is the first crowded primary of the political season, and it includes competitive congressional races as well: Senate seats in New Mexico, New Jersey and South Dakota, and House races there and in Alabama and Iowa. Voters go to the polls in Montana and Mississippi, too.
The weak economy has left many governors vulnerable even in Iowa, where voters have a history of re-electing incumbents. First-term Democrat Tom Vilsack does not have a primary opponent, but three Republicans are seeking the nomination to challenge him. They include the chief of staff to a former governor.
Gubernatorial races are a top battleground this year, with 36 states choosing new leaders or deciding whether to keep the incumbent. Republicans hold a majority nationwide and more 12 of the open seats. Democrats hope to take advantage of that.
"Governors have a very critical role in developing public policy nationally, and the last several presidents we had have all been governors," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "It's certainly a steppingstone."
In Alabama, however, the GOP sees an opportunity from Gov. Siegelman's ethics tangle. A joint state-federal grand jury is investigating the governor's personal finances after a series of disclosures suggested that friends and supporters have tried to cash in on their connections to the administration.
Polls show little chance that Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bishop will win the Democratic nomination, but a respectable showing could damage the incumbent.
Polls have shown that Mr. Siegelman might be vulnerable, as he trails the top Republican candidate, Rep. Bob Riley, 42 percent to 35 percent in the latest newspaper poll. Riley faces Lt. Gov. Steve Windom and Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, for the Republican nomination.
There's also a rush toward open governor seats in New Mexico and South Dakota, both held by Republicans.
Former Clinton official Bill Richardson, who also represented New Mexico in Congress, faces no opposition for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in New Mexico, where he has raised $3.4 million, more than either candidate spent in the 1998 race.
Hoping to keep the seat in Republican hands term limits bar Republican Gov. Gary E. Johnson from another election are Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley and state Reps. John Sanchez and Rob Burpo.
In South Dakota, seven candidates are in the running after Republican Gov. William J. Janklow was forced out after 16 years by term limits. (He's running for an open U.S. House seat.)
The Republican battle has grown nasty between Attorney General Mark Barnett and wealthy businessman Steve Kirby, with negative ads about taxes and business investments.
"The negative campaign on the other side has become a huge issue," said James W. Abbott, who took leave from the presidency of the University of South Dakota to run for the Democratic nomination.
The seven candidates have spent more than $5 million combined, dashing the $2.8 million record spent in the 1994 gubernatorial race.

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