Not too long ago, the image of a Democratic governor was that of California’s Gray Davis, the listless, ideologically compromised bureaucrat who was so uninspiring that he couldn’t even maintain his grip on a very blue state. Then, two years ago, rabble-rousing rancher Brian Schweitzer snatched the top job in the formerly red state of Montana from the Republicans and quickly elbowed his way onto the national stage with so many ideas and so much energy that he was profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and then promoted for the presidency by a grassroots Internet campaign. This year Schweitzer will get company, perhaps a lot of it, as a team of smart, energetic progressives grab for governorships in what may well be the best year for Democrats in the states since 1990. The most prominent of their number, New York’s Eliot Spitzer, is already better known than several 2008 presidential contenders, thanks to his aggressive policing of Wall Street and his defense of the environment and consumers as the state’s crusading attorney general.

Running on the Democratic and Working Families Party ballot lines, Spitzer is so far ahead in the polls (72 to 21 in one recent survey) that there’s talk he could finish with a higher percentage of the vote than his ticket-mate, Senator Hillary Clinton, who is counting on a landslide to carry her into the presidential sweepstakes. Spitzer’s not going to try to take the 2008 nod from Clinton, but he’s got plans to hit the ground running so fast that the governorship of New York could by 2012 or 2016 again be what it was throughout much of the last century: the launching pad for national candidacies by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. With his “Day One: Everything Changes” campaign slogan, Spitzer says he’s out to prove that government can still work. “Day one is when we set out to make healthcare more affordable and cover every single child in the state of New York,” he pledged the night he won the Democratic nomination, “and it’s when we begin to fully fund education to insure that for every New Yorker, the path to opportunity and prosperity begins in our schools.”

One of the most exciting aspects of Spitzer’s campaign is that he has grounded his big ideas in a populist appeal that builds on the giant-killer reputation he achieved as an attorney general who attracted national attention when he took on the securities industry, but whose biggest accomplishments came in lower-profile but no less significant fights with polluters, insurance companies and corporations that sought to raid the pension funds of retired workers. “If one man can stand up to the powerful, so can you,” Spitzer’s television ads declare.

What’s even more exciting is that Spitzer is not the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate whose energy and style could shift both state policies and national debates. States remain, as Louis Brandeis said more than seventy years ago, “laboratories of democracy”–the places where new ideas are turned into smart policies and implemented. California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, like many Republican governors this year, sees that the best way to run for re-election is to run from President Bush. Schwarzenegger earned national headlines over the summer by signing legislation that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to fight the climate changes the White House has yet to acknowledge. And he’s not the only state official who is pushing the policy envelope. Maine Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, has been at the forefront of the fight to extend access to quality healthcare, implementing the innovative Dirigo Health Initiative.

Baldacci and several other governors have begun to wade into debates on trade policy, telling Congress that the Administration’s free-trade agenda isn’t working. And, as more and more responsibilities devolve to the states, there’s a growing sense that governors and legislators can and must begin to establish economic, healthcare and education policies that are dramatically distinct from–and dramatically more progressive than–those coming out of Washington. This model of “progressive federalism” is perhaps best illustrated by the decisions of twenty-three states to establish minimum-wage rates that are higher than the federal rate.

To be sure, not every laboratory of democracy produces positive results; earlier this year South Dakota’s legislature passed and Republican Governor Mike Rounds signed a measure that effectively banned access to abortion in that state. Rounds is being challenged this fall by physician Jack Billion, a former state legislator who says he wants to seize the state that gave America George McGovern and Tom Daschle back from “the radical extremists” who showed their hand with the abortion ban.

The fight for control of statehouses is not merely about particular policies, however. With the federal government dominated by the forces of reaction, state government is far more likely than Washington to point the way out of the morass of the moment–and to produce the next generation of progressive leaders. This is nothing new. The modern Democratic coalition was forged by Roosevelt, a governor who beat a Republican President in the depths of the Depression.

But whatever their politics, governors have proven to be good bets when voters are perceived to be looking for change. Since FDR, former governors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been the only Democrats who have defeated Republican Presidents.

Governors are not merely potential presidential contenders, however. They also have a hand in determining how federal electoral contests turn out. Control of statehouses gives a party organizational and structural advantages in everything from the drawing of district lines for Congressional seats to presidential politics, as was illustrated to the dismay of Democrats by Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2000 and Ohio Governor Bob Taft in 2004. That’s one of the reasons Democrats have been frustrated by their relatively weak position in the states in recent years.

In the early 1990s the Democrats controlled thirty governorships, but after the Republican landslide of 1994, they were down to just nineteen. The comeback has been slow, hindered in particular by the party’s weakening position in the formerly “solid” South. Today, Democrats control only twenty-two governorships. But most of this fall’s thirty-six gubernatorial elections appear to be trending Democratic. Polls suggest that disenchantment with Bush in particular and Republican rule in general, along with ethics scandals in Ohio and several other states, has soured voters on Republican incumbents and candidates in open seats outside the South. In addition to Spitzer’s expected win in New York, a state that fell to the Republicans in 1994, Democratic prospects appear to be good in the currently Republican-led states of Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada and Ohio. Even with Democratic incumbents looking vulnerable in a couple of Midwestern states that have been rocked by the auto industry’s decline–Michigan and Wisconsin–the November 7 elections could well give the Democrats the upper hand in the states for the first time in a dozen years.

If that happens, the party will not merely have a better balance sheet; it will have a list of fresh new leaders. While Spitzer, as Governor of New York, will get more attention than most, he may have to share it with the likes of Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick, the former NAACP attorney who ran the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Clinton, and Nevada’s Dina Titus, a college professor and author turned legislator, both of whom are serious contenders for the top jobs in their states. Patrick, who entered the Democratic primary contest as a virtual unknown, secured the backing of progressives with his strong support for the marriage rights of lesbians and gays, his ardent opposition to the death penalty, his sympathy for immigrants and his backing of a minimum-wage hike and healthcare for all. He then built a highly effective field operation, run by veteran civil rights and social justice activists, that easily beat the campaigns of the state attorney general and a free-spending millionaire in the September 19 primary. Titus, who appears on her campaign website holding a Save Red Rock Canyon picket sign, is an environmentalist who has led fights for smart-growth solutions in the booming Las Vegas area. She highlights her pro-choice position. And she welcomes support from the increasingly powerful labor unions in one of several Western states where changing demographics and shifting moods are creating openings for Democrats.

Titus is in a nasty contest with Republican Congressman Jim Gibbons, who decries her liberal legislative record and dismisses her as “Dina Taxes.” But Gibbons, like other GOP House members seeking governorships this year, has been hampered by his ties to Bush. And the Nevada Republican has had a tough time uniting his own partisans: So far, outgoing Republican Governor Kenny Guinn has refused to endorse Gibbons over Titus, while Guinn’s son, a prominent businessman, is backing the Democrat.

Republican divisions are also on display in the President’s home state of Texas, where Bush’s successor as governor, Rick Perry, finds himself challenged not just by Democrat Chris Bell but by a prominent Republican. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the mother of former White House spokesman Scott McClellan, recently jumped party lines to run as an independent. The most colorful candidate in the Texas contest is another independent, country singer and author Kinky Friedman, who is radical enough to propose committing the oil state to a renewable-energy future. Friedman’s “clean energy and clean government” campaign has caught fire; he’s at 23 percent in the polls to Perry’s 35 percent, and a televised debate in which the wisecracking Friedman is likely to shine is yet to come. Friedman’s a long way from the statehouse, but he’s running better in the polls than wrestler turned Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura was at the same point in 1998. In the still unlikely event that Friedman wins, the spotlight will be his. But the better bet is that, come November, attention will turn to the headline-friendly Spitzer–and, if the voting favors them, Patrick and Titus–along with the prospect that Democratic governors will again have both the authority and the star power to play a critical role in defining the policies and the politics of their party and the nation.