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Governors Races Top Tuesday Primary Contests

Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner.
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California and South Carolina Republicans appear ready to nominate women for governor in races marked by record money and infidelity accusations.

Primary voters in six states will choose their party nominees for governor on Tuesday. The votes are a key step in a year during which 37 governorships will be up for grabs in the fall -- including a whopping 23 open seats.

The rare opportunity that has 18 Republican and 19 Democratic seats on the block has resulted in a statehouse stampede perhaps best exemplified by Tuesday's most high-profile contests, both on Republican tickets and with women leading the pack.

In California, leading Republican candidate Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief, has already spent more than $80 million -- the bulk of it her own -- in a money-saturated race to carry the party's banner in November against likely Democratic nominee Jerry Brown. The winner will succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And, in a clamorous battle in South Carolina, GOP hopeful state Rep. Nikki Haley has survived infidelity accusations and parlayed Tea Party enthusiasm and a Sarah Palin endorsement into front-runner status in her effort to follow love-struck and term-limited GOP Gov. Mark Sanford into office.

Also on Tuesday's ballots will be U.S. Senate primaries in six states.

They include closely watched races in Nevada, where three Republicans are vying to challenge Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in the fall, and in California, where the GOP's Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard, appears on track to win the right to face three-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

High Stakes/Big Races

But it's the gubernatorial races, and the potential power invested in the new state leaders -- including the hugely political. once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional district lines using new U.S. Census data -- that have captured political watchers' attention in recent weeks.

In South Carolina, the nasty, rollicking GOP primary has some Democrats daring to dream of a fall victory in a state where 2008 GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain defeated the Democratic nominee then-Sen. Barack Obama 53.8 percent to 44.9 percent. Voters in South Carolina don't register by party, and they can choose on primary day to vote in either race.

Democrats vying for their party's nomination are front-runner and well-financed state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, 39, state Education Superintendent Jim Rex, 68, and state Sen. Robert Ford, 61.

"Democrats could well be advantaged in the long pull because it's been far less contentious on their side," says Neal Thigpen, a political analyst who has served as a delegate to state and national GOP conventions. "They've conducted themselves as gentlemen, and that stands in stark comparison with the Republican Party."

Haley, 38, an accountant and onetime Sanford loyalist, catapulted to the lead in the four-way GOP race after a mid-May endorsement from Palin and emerging support from those in the Tea Party movement. Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny, also endorsed Haley.

In recent weeks, a Republican blogger has made unproven claims of an affair with the married Haley, as has a primary opponent's supporter. And she's been referred to as a "raghead" by GOP state Sen. John M. "Jake" Knotts Jr., who supports the GOP gubernatorial bid of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.

Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, has denied the adultery claims and has said if she's elected governor she'll resign if any are proven true.

"The allegations against her have turned a lot of people off," says Thigpen, who headed the political science department at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., for 25 years. "The whole thing has been ugly -- it gives you a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach."

The most recent polls show that the attacks on Haley appear to have backfired. One recent survey shows her leading her closest rival, 49-year-old U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, by double digits. However, if Haley or any of the candidates fail to capture at least 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, the top two finishers would face a June 22 runoff.

"Given her close alliance with Gov. Sanford, if she's nominated it gives Democrats a chance," Thigpen says.

And some state GOP strategists say that though Haley's brand of conservatism and support from the Tea Party movement may be propelling her in the primary season, her candidacy and past close association with Mark Sanford could be a more difficult sell in the general election -- even in a state as Republican as South Carolina.

California Scheming

There was a moment not so long ago that it appeared that even money of the magnitude of billionaire Whitman's couldn't propel the former executive and political neophyte into November's race for the governor's mansion.

That moment passed, aided by Whitman's infusion of at least $71 million of her own money into her relentless on-air and in-the-mail campaign against state insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Polls show Whitman, 53, with a commanding 20-point-plus lead over Poizner, also 53, who appeared, briefly, to be within striking distance in early May.

Local politicos and reporters have had a field day with Whitman's campaign finance disclosure documents, which detail chartered planes, a bevy of political consultants -- one of whom makes $90,000 a month -- and a private entourage of videographers documenting her race.

Campaign spending reports show that Democrat Jerry Brown, 72, currently the state's attorney general and former two-term governor, had spent about $320,000 through late May.

Brown has been running ahead of Whitman in recent polls testing the potential matchup. At Pollster.com, Brown holds an average 45.1 percent to 38.4 percent lead over Whitman.

Last week in Pleasanton, Calif., Whitman, who despite her historic campaign investment has been fashioning herself as a "fiscal conservative," told supporters that she feels good about her primary prospects and is looking to "turn around and take on Jerry Brown and the unions" in the fall.

She still has some money of her own to wage that battle: Last year, Whitman suggested that she would be willing to spend up to $150 million of her own money to win.

Larry Gerston, a California political analyst, says that Whitman (assuming she wins on Tuesday) will come out of the primary battle with an asset, a liability and, of course plenty of money. "The asset is that she has fine-tuned her campaign," says Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. "She seems to have overcome some early gaffes and has developed a very disciplined effort."

The liability? She has run to the right to accommodate the party's true believers, Gerston says, and like many successful primary candidates will now have to make a graceful pivot back to the center before the November election on issues ranging from offshore oil drilling to abortion.

Analysts such Gerston expect Brown to use Whitman's campaign spending against her in coming months. Brown, who has about $30 million in his war chest, is expecting up to $30 million from unions, Gerston says, and a similar infusion from an independent expenditure committee spearheaded by businessman Ron Burkle.

Around The Horn

While the races in California and South Carolina have dominated coverage, there will be gubernatorial primaries Tuesday in four other states.

In Iowa, former four-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is expected to best two challengers for the right to take on Democratic Gov. Chet Culver in the fall. Culver, who is seeking a second term, has seen his popularity erode, and a recent Public Policy Poll suggests that Branstad would easily defeat the incumbent.

In Maine, where Democratic Gov. John Baldacci is term-limited, both the Democratic and Republican races are considered wide open.

Five Republicans in South Dakota want the party's nod to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Mike Rounds by facing off against Democrat Scott Heidepriem, the state Senate leader, in the fall.

Sen. Harry Reid's son, Rory Reid, is a shoo-in to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Nevada, where incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons is expected to fall short in his attempt to win his party's nomination. Polls show that former federal Judge Brian Sandoval enjoys a strong lead for the GOP nomination over Gibbons, another governor beset by marital and other problems. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.