WASHINGTON -- As the California governor's race goes, so goes the 1990 election.
That Republican claim sounds like a ploy to delay any downbeat analysis until most of the country is asleep in bed tomorrow. But there may be something to it.
For one thing, capturing California, the biggest prize of 1990, would mean that the year was not a total loss for the party that grabs it. For another, winning California might be necessary to prevent a GOP wipeout in three key Sun Belt gubernatorial contests.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Bob Martinez narrowly trails Democrat Lawton Chiles. In Texas, in perhaps the most dramatic finish of all, Republican millionaire oilman Clayton Williams is struggling to hold off Democratic state Treasurer Ann Richards; while President Bush rushed to his aid over the weekend, Mr. Williams spent much of his time trying to explain why he paid no federal income taxes in 1986.
Only in California, where Republican Pete Wilson has a slim lead over Democrat Dianne Feinstein, does the GOP candidate seem to have some breathing room, and even he's no cinch.
"Tuesday's going to be a very, very good day for the Democratic Party," Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown predicted yesterday. "Ann Richards is closing fast. Dianne Feinstein is closing fast. Lawton Chiles is ahead in Florida."
Other Democrats seem less certain.
"It could be the best of times; it could be the worst," said Mark Gearan, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association, as he surveyed the unexpectedly large number of contests that could still go either way.
Michelle Davis of the Republican Governors' Association can foresee everything from a net gain of one governorship and a brace of big-state wins for her party, in the optimistic scenario, to a virtual blood bath if an anti-Republican trend takes hold.
What seems increasingly likely, in any event, is that the political importance of this year's election will be found in the 36 contests for governor, rather than for the Senate and House of Representatives.
The shift of federal responsibilities to the states has given governors a more prominent role in setting national policy over the past decade. But they have long played a crucial partisan role.
Governors can greatly assist their party's presidential hopefuls, as then-Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire proved dramatically in 1988 for George Bush. At a crucial moment in the Republican race for the nomination that year, his support helped Mr. Bush win the crucial New Hampshire primary.
Many governors wind up running themselves, as some of this year's candidates may -- including Govs. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Bill Clinton of Arkansas and newcomer John Silber of Massachusetts, assuming they win tomorrow.
This November, a 20-year electoral cycle finds a majority of governorships up for election in the same year that redistricting begins. Who sits in the governor's chair will go a long way toward deciding which party has the advantage when congressional and state legislative district lines are redrawn next year.
California, Texas and Florida, all currently served by GOP governors, are likely to get 14 of the 19 congressional districts that are moving south and west. During this decade, those three states alone will be home to nearly one-fourth of the entire 435-member House of Representatives.
Were Republicans to lose all three governorships tomorrow -- not the most likely outcome but well within the realm of possibility -- GOP chances of becoming the nation's majority party before the turn of the century might never recover.
A strong Republican hand in redistricting in those states is crucial. Otherwise, "it's awfully difficult to make up the margins" in other states, said Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats, who currently enjoy a 29-21 advantage in governorships, stand a good chance of increasing their total by two or more.
While most of the big-state contests could go either way, Democrats are virtually assured of gaining the governorship of Rhode Island, where GOP incumbent Edward DiPrete badly trails Democrat Bruce Sundlun.
In Nebraska, the nation's only female Republican governor, Kay A. Orr, is in danger of being unseated. Democrats also have a good chance of picking up one or more states that have GOP governors: Maine, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Republicans are favored to pick up the governorship in Ohio, one of several Northern and Midwest states where the redistricting battle will be to prevent partisan damage when the House seats are lost in 1992. They may gain the governorships of Vermont and, possibly, Minnesota.
In two other states where Democratic governors aren't seeking re-election, Alaska and Connecticut, former Republicans running as independents, Walter J. Hickel and Lowell P. Weicker, respectively, are narrow favorites to win.
The list of tossup states includes Illinois, where Republicans are narrowly favored to retain the governorship of retiring GOP veteran James R. Thompson. In Massachusetts, GOP candidate William Weld has closed dramatically on Democrat Silber in the fight to succeed Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.
In Minnesota, Gov. Rudy Perpich's try for an unprecedented fourth term is being challenged by Republican Arne Carlson, who is running even though he got on the ballot less than a week ago after the original GOP nominee withdrew.