Voters on Tuesday elect governors in 11 states, deciding close contests in Indiana, North Carolina and Washington as Republicans try to chip away at the Democrats' slim majority of gubernatorial seats.
The races are a prelude to 2010, when four of every five states will elect governors who will help preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts.
The maps are redrawn every 10 years after the census to ensure that legislative boundaries reflect population changes. Republicans say 25 congressional seats could be in play as a result of 2010 governors' races.
Governors often play a bigger role than the federal government in how Americans live their lives, particularly in areas such as health care, schools and higher education. And their fundraising and organizing abilities also make governors important to presidential campaigns.
Some governors have become presidential running mates, such as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, or presidential candidates themselves, such as former governors Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton.
Democrats hold a 28-22 edge among governors nationally, a majority they gained in 2006 after more than a dozen years in the minority.
Drama in Olympia
In Washington state, voters are watching a nasty rematch of the 2004 battle between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi.
Gregoire won that race by 133 votes after two recounts and a lawsuit, the closest margin in a governor's race in U.S. history. This fall, the two are running even again.
Adding to the drama, Rossi stepped away from the campaign Wednesday to give sworn testimony in a lawsuit alleging he illegally helped a major campaign contributor. Rossi calls the lawsuit a political gimmick.
Systems analyst Jo Ferguson is supporting Gregoire, but she is not happy about either candidate's behavior.
"The general tone of the election is something I think they should both be ashamed of," said Ferguson, 64, of suburban Seattle. "Negative campaigning just doesn't get us where we need to go to solve the problems we face."
Strong challenge in North Carolina
In North Carolina, with a long history of electing Democratic governors, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from Pat McCrory, the GOP mayor of Charlotte.
Republicans have held the governor's seat in North Carolina for only 12 years in the past century, despite the state's tendency to support the GOP in presidential and congressional races.
McCrory has positioned himself as a problem solver without strong ideological positions.
"At the same time, he's done a good job of understanding there is considerable unease out there and suggesting Bev Perdue is a quintessentially status quo person," said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University.
Perdue argues she has a history of solving problems based on her years in state government.
Economy is key concern
One of the keys to the race will be whether the high number of voters expected to turn out for Barack Obama, especially black voters, will also cast ballots for governor.
That's also true in Indiana, where incumbent GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels confronts a strong challenge from Democrat Jill Long Thompson, despite Daniels' huge advantage in fundraising. Short on cash, Long Thompson was off the air between Labor Day and Oct. 21.
Long Thompson has campaigned with Obama, a departure from typical politics in Indiana, where Democrats tend to distance themselves from their parties more liberal presidential candidates.
The economy is a big issue in Indiana. Jobs are up over the past four years, but the state has lost 20,000 jobs since January, including August and September.
Pollster Ann Selzer said the question is whether Obama's huge campaign operation in Indiana translate to votes for Long Thompson. Selzer said Daniels' 56 percent approval rating didn't suggest he's overly vulnerable. Recent polls show him pulling away from Long Thompson.
"He's tested in areas that are more important as voters make up their minds now," Selzer said.
Even if Democrats lose Washington and North Carolina, they appear to be on the brink of picking up another gubernatorial seat in Missouri, where Attorney General Jay Nixon is leading Rep. Kenny Hulshof.
The Missouri seat opened up when GOP incumbent Matt Blunt shocked the state earlier this year by announcing he would not seek re-election. Hulshof was hurt by a heated GOP primary and voter discontent with Blunt.
In Vermont, Republican incumbent Jim Douglas is poised to defeat Democratic challenger Gaye Symington to win a fourth two-year term. But a strong showing by independent Anthony Pollina could deny Douglas a majority, meaning the state Legislature would decide the winner.
Looking to 2010
Democratic incumbents in New Hampshire and West Virginia were shoo-ins for re-election. Democrat Lee Markell in Delaware appeared ready to keep the seat in Democratic hands after Ruth Ann Minner stepped down because of term limits.
In Montana, Democratic incumbent Gov. Brian Schweitzer was running well ahead of opponent Roy Brown in a race dominated by debates over the state's energy production levels.
Schweitzer also had to apologize for jokingly suggesting in a July speech in Philadelphia that he influenced the outcome of Montana's 2006 Senate election in which Democrat Jon Tester defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.
Republican incumbents in North Dakota and Utah faced easy re-election.
Looking ahead to 2010, when 36 states elect governors, both parties have been raising money at a record pace.
The Republican Governors Association brought in $22 million through September, with $19 million on hand. The Democratic Governors Association raised $19 million during the same time, with expectations of having $9 million on hand by year's end.