As New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. takes his initial steps towards the state governor race, many Democrats statewide feel 2006 will provide an ideal opportunity for their party to occupy the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1991.

With a new poll showing incumbent Republican Gov. John Rowland with approval ratings of 35 percent, several Democrats said they believe the Republican candidate will be vulnerable, regardless of whether Rowland chooses to run for a fourth term. But in a crowded field that will likely include Democrats who have already held state office, DeStefano may face an uphill battle in his attempt to become the party’s nominee.

DeStefano said he recognized the challenges he faces in winning the Democratic nomination, but he said his record and dedication would make him a strong contender.

“It’s clear to me that there are going to be a number of Democratic candidates,” said DeStefano, who first confirmed that he was seeking the nomination this week. “It’s also clear to me that I’m absolutely a competitive candidate.”

DeStefano said he will likely form a committee for his candidacy after the November general election, in which he is running for a sixth term without major opposition.

DeStefano also said he would run for reelection in 2005 regardless of how the race for governor develops. But the mayor said he decided to announce his interest in running for the office over three years before the gubernatorial election because speculation about his candidacy was already so strong.

“Frankly, I just chose to be straight-forward about the whole thing,” DeStefano said. “The formal declaration is for another day, but I’m not going to deny my interest and I’m not going to deny that this is important to me.”

DeStefano’s interest in the governor’s race has been an open secret among many Democrats across the state, as he has raised his profile far outside New Haven as an advocate for cities at the state and national level. But DeStefano may face fierce challenges from several Democrats who have already run successfully for state office, including state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz ’83.

Blumenthal, who some Democrats said could be a front-runner in the race, said he has not yet decided whether he will run for governor in 2006.

“My focus now is on being the best possible attorney general I can be, which is the best way to make other opportunities happen,” Blumenthal said.

Bysiewicz, however, has already formed an exploratory committee for her gubernatorial campaign and raised over $400,000 in small contributions. She said the Democratic candidate would have a good chance at winning the governor’s race regardless of who wins the nomination.

“I think that Democrats believe for a variety of reasons — the budget deficits, layoffs of more than 3,000 state employees, higher taxes, various corruption investigations, indictments and convictions — that this is the time for the Democratic Party to win the governor’s seat back,” Bysiewicz said.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed 55 percent of voters disapprove of Rowland’s performance as governor, despite slight improvements in his job ratings in recent months. Although Rowland’s chief of staff Dean Pagani said the governor’s low ratings can be attributed to the weak economy rather than any dissatisfaction with his leadership, Quinnipiac poll director Douglas Schwartz said the low approval ratings were heartening news for potential Democratic candidates.

“I think what enters the calculations for any Democrat looking to run for governor is that it is likely to be an open seat or a vulnerable incumbent,” Schwartz said.

But Bill Curry, the former state comptroller who ran as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994 and 2002, said Democrats need to present their views more clearly if they are to recapture the governor’s office.

“The challenge of the Democratic Party is to get straight with itself about why it wants to govern,” said Curry, who has not yet decided what his political future will be. “We all dream of politicians who have the courage of their convictions. In order to have the courage of your convictions, first you have to have convictions, then you can have the courage.”

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”19276″ ]