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GOP Statehouse Showing A Surprise

Republicans defied expectations in a year when analysts and even GOP officials thought Democrats would take back the governorships in a majority of states.

Despite a weak economy and budget shortfalls, Republicans won well over half the gubernatorial races on Tuesday's ballot and can expect to do no worse than a 25-25 tie with Democrats nationwide. Controlling a state's top office is generally thought to help a party during presidential election years: it also gives the party a platform for shaping domestic policy.

Democrats' hopes of achieving an even split hung on results in a single state: Alabama, where the two candidates were squabbling over votes.

While Democrats won big victories in industrial swing states, the GOP took two top prizes — Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida and heavily Democratic Maryland, where a Kennedy hoped to make history.

"We surprised everybody," said Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, a Republican who easily won re-election. He was particularly proud of the GOP taking five of the six New England states, reclaiming Vermont and New Hampshire from Democrats in the process.

"The majority of people are looking to Republican leaders for fiscal restraint and building the budget in a time when our economy, and more importantly our nation, is a little more uncertain," he said.

Before Tuesday, the national breakdown was 27 Republican governors, 21 Democrats and two independents. But the GOP was defending 23 of their seats and Democrats only 11, as term limits and retirements left Republicans vulnerable.

Afterward, Democrats held 24 states and Republicans 25 — though Vermont won't be final until its new Legislature officially chooses the Republican winner since no candidate got more than half the vote. The Democrat there conceded.

Republicans kept three of the four most populous states — New York, Texas and Florida, with Jeb Bush receiving repeated help from his presidential brother to offset an aggressive Democratic effort to win the key state of the 2000 election.

In another race involving a political dynasty, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, hoping to be the first of the Kennedy clan to win a governorship, saw her high-name recognition and years as lieutenant governor fall to GOP Rep. Bob Ehrlich.

Still, Democrats cheered their victories in the Midwest and West, where they won formerly GOP seats in Illinois, which Republicans held for a quarter-century, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming. They also won in Tennessee, Oregon, Maine and the swing state of Pennsylvania, while California Gov. Gray Davis fended off a GOP challenge.

"The map is extraordinary," said retiring Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who oversaw recruitment of Democratic gubernatorial candidates. "That great big red band (of Republican states) in the middle of the country is now broken up."

Dean, already considering a run for the White House in 2004, estimated that Democratic governors will serve in states that account for almost 300 electoral votes.

"It's an advantage to have governors in states where they can put together the machinery necessary to win an election," he said. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

Besides the Republican pickups in New England, the GOP also expanded its reach in the South, turning out of office two Democratic governors who four years ago defied the Republican gains in that region — Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges.

In Alabama, a dispute over ballots from a GOP county left undecided the race between first-term Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman and Republican Rep. Bob Riley.

But Democrats picked up the formerly GOP seat in Tennessee with a victory by former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen. Democratic Attorney General Janet Napolitano also edged Republican Rep. Matt Salmon to end 12 years of GOP control of the Arizona governor's office.

And Democrat Ted Kulongoski won a slim victory over Republican Kevin Mannix in Oregon's tightest race for governor in years.

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