updated 8/6/2006 12:59:20 AM ET 2006-08-06T04:59:20

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The three-day annual summer gathering of the National Governors Association is aimed at tackling health care, education and other policy challenges facing every state. But the morning was all about politics and how each party could best come out ahead as 36 states choose governors this fall.

With tight elections in many of the most critical states, and several swing states that must be won for any presidential victory in 2008, governors’ political groups are leading all other similar organizations in cash raised so far.

“It’s a huge year,” said Democrat Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

“The elections are a point of major discussion,” said this year’s host governor, Republican Mark Sanford.

Top-raising 527 groups
An analysis of the latest fundraising by the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association showed they were the top groups structured as a 527 — named for a tax code provision that became a well-used loophole in campaign finance reform, allowing unlimited soft money contributions.

The RGA reported $25.9 million raised so far in the two-year 2006 election cycle. Roughly $12 million of that was raised this year alone, RGA officials say. The DGA reported $17.9 million raised, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington that tracks campaign financing.

The RGA is on track to break all earlier records, said RGA Executive Director Phil Musser.

The two organizations’ totals outpace all other similar fundraising groups, including the $15.6 million raised by the Service Employees International Union and $11.6 million raised by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Heated contests
Among the contested races:

—Ohio: A critical swing state for the White House features an open seat where polls show Democrat Ted Strickland ahead of Republican Kenneth Blackwell. President Bush visited last week to help raise $1.5 million.

—Pennsylvania: Incumbent Ed Rendell, a Democrat, is being challenged by former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann, who is carrying GOP hopes for an upset.

—Florida: Another open seat since Gov. Jeb Bush is term-limited, and both parties are in vigorous primaries. Voters will narrow the choices to two in Sept. 5.

Races are also heating up in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere.

Nationally, Republicans hold 28 governorships to the Democrats’ 22.

Republicans have to defend 22 executive mansions compared to 14 held by Democrats. When it comes to vacant seats, Republicans are trying to hold onto seven offices compared to just one for the Democrats.

“It’s a real critical year,” said Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who is term-limited and exploring a presidential run.

Dems look to change tide
Democrats, who lost the majority of governorships in 1994, are counting on widespread dissatisfaction with GOP control in Washington to boost the odds in their favor even more. A network of strong governors can boost presidential campaigns and shape domestic policy — and develop a farm team for higher office.

“I think it’s going to be a very good year for Democratic governorships,” said Arizona’s Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. “It’s very probable, if not sheer likely, that the Democrats will be a majority.

“Next to the presidency, control of the statehouse and the governorships has the most impact on people.”

Republicans don’t dispute the odds.

“The polls would suggest we’d lose six to eight governorships this year,” said Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, head of the RGA, who is not seeking re-election and is exploring a presidential run. “The math is not good for us.” But he said he’s confident the group will pick up several seats now held by Democrats to limit the losses.

Jockeying for the White House
For Romney, like several others, the visit to South Carolina — an early stop on the presidential primary trail — provides an opportunity to prepare for 2008.

Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York, also eyeing a White House bid, held a small networking session Friday with former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley and planned to swing to the other side of the state to meet voters on Sunday. Democrat Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa went stumping with a Democratic state senator challenging Sanford on Friday.

But that’s long-term planning. This summer’s all about gubernatorial campaigns.

The governors’ political groups aim to provide resources and cash in the closest or most important races. “We don’t offer campaign advice or strategies, we provide funding,” Romney said.

They’ll need it. In 2002, the last time voters in 36 states chose governors, the campaigns overall raised $861 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

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