No one will watch the Nov. 5 mid-term elections more closely than President Bush, whose own re-election bid in 2004 may hinge in part on how well his Republican colleagues do in this year's gubernatorial races.
The top government job is up for grabs in 36 states, eight of which hold 228 of the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the presidency. The odds of a Republican sweep in these key states California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas are more than a million-to-one. Political analysts predict the Democrats will end up with at least four of them California, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Some political observers say the GOP could lose Texas and Florida in November. The loss of either would be a huge embarrassment for the president because his younger brother, Jeb, presides over Florida, and his protg, Rick Perry, assumed the governorship of Texas after Bush resigned to take the presidency.
"I think Texas and Florida are really critical," says political science professor Earl Black of Rice University in Houston. "Texas because Bush was governor for six years and Florida because of what happened there in 2000 and the fact that Jeb is the governor."
"If Jeb Bush were to lose...that would certainly set Florida up as a major battleground (in 2004)," Black continued. "That's the state that's becoming more important in American politics, especially to the Republicans because all the Republican (presidential candidates) since 1980 have had to have Florida to win."
Political scholar Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute agrees.
"As we head toward 2004, the symbolic impact of the Democrats winning Florida and, or, Texas, itself would be meaningful," says Ornstein.
National Democratic leaders are now deciding how much money and campaign support to give the party's gubernatorial nominee in Florida -- Bill McBride, a wealthy Tampa lawyer. His surprise victory over former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno in the primary has turned what Democratic officials thought would be a relatively easy win for Bush into what some are predicting could be one of the tightest races in the country.
Not only would a victory over Jeb Bush be sweet revenge for the Bush-Gore outcome in 2000, it would also give the Democrats one more governorship they had not expected to pick up this year in their quest to take back control of a majority of states.
The Republicans now hold 27 governorships to the Democrats 21. Two - Minnesota and Maine - are held by Independents.
Based on recent polls, it appears the Democrats will achieve parity with the GOP this year and possibly win one or two more statehouses. That depends, however, on how well they do in states such as Alabama, Iowa, and South Carolina, which were considered safe bets to stay Democratic earlier this year but are now considered close races.
Controlling the top office in more states than the other party may not seem like much. But in a time of significant budget restraints, a popular governor can make a big difference in setting the legislative agenda and rallying public support or opposition on controversial issues.
Bush, whose margin of victory was razor-thin in 2000, will need all the support from governors he can get to win in 2004.
"Admittedly, a governor has some prestige, some standing and visibility in his own state (and) that can help. But...you can find all over the battlefield in 2000 examples of governors who tried very hard but couldn't make the difference (for their candidates)," Ornstein said.
Although Bush lost crucial states with GOP governors such as Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin in 2000, his brother's help in Florida made the difference. Gov. Bush helped deliver crucial votes and GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris made some election decisions that may have helped turn the vote count in Bush's favor.
"Let's face it, if Bill McBride had been governor of Florida in 2000...we might have had a different person other than Katherine Harris making some very important decisions," says Ornstein. "You could have seen a different dynamic there. And we might have seen enough of an additional mobilization of Democratic voters that the election wouldn't have been quite as close."