Crucial decisions to make in the off-year election

Although most of the nation is focused on the 2008 campaign, voters still have important decisions to make in today’s off-year election, including choosing governors in Mississippi and Kentucky, electing four big-city mayors, and considering a host of ballot initiatives.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, one of the few politicians to emerge from Hurricane Katrina looking good, was heavily favored to defeat a Democratic opponent who laced his criticism of the Republican incumbent with religious references.

Religion also figured prominently in Kentucky, where Gov. Ernie Fletcher was trailing badly in the polls and ordered that the Ten Commandments be displayed alongside other historical documents in the state Capitol the day before the election.

In Mississippi, Barbour’s campaign capitalized on his successful management of the hurricane recovery, stressing job growth and rebuilding along the Gulf Coast.

In contrast, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco came under such widespread criticism for her response to the hurricane that she did not seek another term. And New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s hopes of winning higher office have almost certainly been damaged by the city’s sluggish recovery.

Blanco’s decision to step down opened the way for Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal, the Oxford-educated son of Indian immigrants, to win last month’s Louisiana governor’s race, the nation’s only other gubernatorial contest this year.

Barbour’s opponent, Democratic trial lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr., quoted Scripture when he accused the governor of being beholden to “moneychangers” such as big tobacco, oil and insurance companies through his old Washington lobbying firm.

Barbour responded in a recent debate by reciting a passage from the Book of Daniel in which a hand appears out of nowhere to write a message on the wall of the temple in Babylon. If another hand appeared and wrote out a denial of Eaves’ allegations, Barbour said, “that wouldn’t be good enough for my opponent.”

Brian Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University, said the gubernatorial elections are largely focused on state and local issues, not on developments affecting the 2008 national election.

But “there will be a lot of people trying to spin it that way after the fact,” Brox said. “They’ll either say it was a vote for change if Democrats win, or it will be the Republicans saying, ‘Not so fast.'”

In Kentucky, Fletcher acted yesterday on the Ten Commandments following a decision by a federal judge who ruled that a previous injunction in a separate court case did not apply to the display erected in the Capitol.

Democrat Steve Beshear also made religion a centerpiece of his campaign challenging Fletcher, who has spent much of his term battling accusations that he directed the hiring of political allies for jobs protected by the state’s merit system.

Beshear cited his religious upbringing and ran television ads showing him in front of a church in western Kentucky. A former state lawmaker, attorney general and lieutenant governor, he is attempting a comeback after a nearly 10-year hiatus from politics.

Fletcher, the state’s first GOP governor in more than 30 years, was indicted on misdemeanor charges that were later dismissed in a negotiated deal after a judge said he could not be tried in office. But the grand jury later issued its findings, saying Fletcher had approved a “widespread and coordinated plan” to skirt state hiring laws.

Voters were also set to choose mayors in San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom was poised to win his second term, just eight months after admitting he had a drinking problem and an affair with a close aide’s wife. Despite his personal woes, the incumbent did not even face a serious challenger.

Houston Mayor Bill White had only token opposition in his bid for re-election as leader of the nation’s fourth-largest city. White gained national recognition in 2005 for organizing the unexpected arrival of 250,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

In Philadelphia, former Democratic councilman Michael Nutter was nearly certain to become the city’s next mayor on his promises to reduce gun violence, crack down on no-bid contracts and offer $10,000 tax breaks to companies that hire convicts. But first Nutter wants to declare a citywide litter cleanup and rid the City of Brotherly Love of its less-flattering nickname: Filthadelphia.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who at 26 became the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city last year following the death of the incumbent, faces a challenge from Republican Mark DeSantis.

Several states were voting on ballot measures, including a Utah proposal that would create the nation’s first statewide school voucher program open to all families. If approved, the plan would grant $500 to $3,000, depending on income, for each child sent to private school. Unlike other voucher plans geared toward low-income students or those in failing schools, Utah’s plan would be available to anyone, even affluent families in well-performing districts.

In Oregon, voters were to consider a measure to raise the cigarette tax by 84.5 cents a pack – to $2.02 – to fund health insurance for about 100,000 children now lacking coverage. Tobacco companies opposing the plan have outspent supporters by a 4-1 margin, contributing nearly $12 million.

In New Jersey, voters will decide a referendum authorizing the state to borrow $450 million over 10 years to finance stem cell research. The Roman Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups oppose the measure, which was placed on the ballot by the Legislature with strong backing from Gov. Jon Corzine.

Associated Press writers Roger Alford in Frankfort, Ky., and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.