Wash. governor's race is rematch of 2004 contest

By: AP
By: AP

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Four years after one of the closest gubernatorial races in American history, the same two candidates are locked in another frenzied fight for Washington state's governor's mansion.

But this time, the contest between Democrat Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi is nastier and much more expensive. And the rematch has dominated politics here like few contests in memory, sucking up much of the advertising space, media coverage and political money.

With about two weeks until Election Day, polls show the candidates about where they left off in 2004: in a street fight for every last vote.

"Everybody's going to have to go in a sensory deprivation tank after this election and just cool down for two weeks," independent pollster Stuart Elway said. "You can make the case that this race has been going on for five years."

Gregoire, a former state attorney general, won the 2004 contest by just 133 votes out of about 2.8 million cast - the closest percentage margin of any governor's race in U.S. history.

She got that slim margin only after two recounts, and the victory wasn't even final until the following summer, when Republicans lost a courtroom challenge.

Gregoire (pronounced GREG-wahr) enjoyed a relatively easy first term, thanks to Democratic majorities in the state Legislature and surging tax revenue stoked by a hot real estate market.

But now, the state's finances are crumbling, with analysts predicting a deficit of about $3.2 billion in the next two-year budget.

Re-enter Rossi, a former state senator who, as a top GOP budget writer in 2003, worked with Democrats to balance the last major deficit. His generally upbeat, relentlessly on-message campaign emphasizes atmospherics over details, a direct counterpoint to Gregoire's serious, policy-wonk persona.

Rossi also is angling for Obama voters, running a "change" campaign that criticizes Gregoire's lifelong involvement in state government and Democrats' two-decade hold on the governor's office.

"It's been the same people in charge for so long now," Rossi said. "It's not going to change with the same people doing the same thing over again."

Rossi also has tried to distance himself from his party. Like some other Republicans in close races, he skipped this year's national convention. He also took advantage of Washington's quirky ballot, which allows candidates to pick their own party preference, to list himself as "GOP," shorthand for the Republican nickname "Grand Old Party."

For her part, Gregoire attacks the spending cuts that happened when Rossi last worked on budget matters, and she blames the state's fiscal woes on the Bush administration's handling of the national economy.

Rossi is a Republican in the Bush mold, she says, on everything from economic deregulation to the name of his family dog, "Dubya."

"No place in America has escaped the mess created by the George Bush failed economic policies - policies that my opponent has embraced and endorsed," she said.

Gregoire struggled early in the race to tie her campaign directly to Obama's. But she and her allies have pushed the link more forcefully in recent weeks. Glossy mailers picturing her with Obama have been arriving at voters' homes, and Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, led a rally with Gregoire last weekend.

Interest groups from both sides have poured millions into the race, and the candidates themselves have raised about $20 million total, easily making this campaign the most expensive in state history.

Gregoire has been attacked on topics such as the state's release of homeless sex offenders and her negotiation of a tribal gambling agreement that didn't give the state a cut of casino revenue.

Rossi has felt the heat as well, particularly on social issues such as abortion and emergency contraception. Perhaps the most striking ad features the mother of a boy with diabetes breaking into sobs at the mention of Rossi's name, criticizing his opposition to embryonic stem-cell research.

In recent weeks, Rossi also has been tied up in a lawsuit from Gregoire supporters alleging that he illegally coordinated fundraising with his biggest third-party supporters, the construction industry. The lawsuit has raised the stunning possibility that Rossi could face a deposition under oath on the eve of the election.

In the end, however, the economy is likely to be the top issue, and the campaigns have turned their messages to pocketbook concerns as the national economic meltdown has deepened.

Both candidates are running on a pledge of no new taxes, but they have clear partisan differences about how to solve the looming state deficit. The election may come down to whether voters trust Gregoire to perform careful triage during tough times, or decide to throw her out in a rejection of the party in power.

Despite their tendency to lean Democratic, particularly in recent years, Washington voters have a Western independent streak and a history of splitting tickets.

In 2004, for instance, Gregoire got about 74,000 fewer votes than presidential nominee John Kerry in heavily Democratic King County, the state's largest. At the same time, Rossi outperformed Bush in the county by about 50,000 votes.

Add to the mix Washington's almost entirely vote-by-mail election system, which takes an excruciatingly long time to count ballots, and many expect another close race that might not be decided on Election Day.

On the Net:
Gregoire: http://www.chrisgregoire.com
Rossi: http://www.dinorossi.com

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