- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tuesday’s Senate primary election in Washington state has become more like a warm-up bout for the top Democratic and Republican candidates, who have already penciled in a rematch in the November main event.

With the state’s quirky nonpartisan primary format that allows only the top two vote-getters to advance regardless of party, veteran Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray will almost certainly face GOP favorite Dino Rossi, a former state senator considered the party’s best hope, once again in the general election.

“At this point, it’s a beauty contest” for Mr. Rossi, said Don Benton, a fellow Republican state lawmaker who quit the Senate primary contest after Mr. Rossi jumped in late in the spring.

“There’s no reason to spend money to speak of when you’re in front,” said Mr. Benton. “Dino’s well-known enough. But after [the primary], you have to be more aggressive to beat an incumbent.”

A year ago, few predicted that Mrs. Murray, the one time “mom in tennis shoes” now seeking her fourth term in the Senate, would have a particularly difficult time. But with the polls tightening and talk of a national “wave election” mounting, the fortunes of Democratic incumbents like Mrs. Murray and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold could determine the scale of the Republican gains in the midterm elections.

Washington is one of two states holding primaries Tuesday, along with Wyoming.

Washington Republicans have targeted Mrs. Murray for defeat long before they finally coaxed Mr. Rossi into the race in mid-May.

“We’ve been working to hold Mrs. Murray accountable for the past 18 years,” said Brian Walsh of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Most polls have shown a close race from the start, with Mr. Rossi now trailing by roughly 4 percentage points, according to an average of polls by Real Clear Politics. That’s half the margin Mrs. Murray, 60, had when Mr. Rossi declared his candidacy.

A SurveyUSA poll released last week found 41 percent of likely voters plan to vote for Mrs. Murray and 33 percent support for Mr. Rossi on Tuesday. Most forecasters put the seat in the “leans Democratic” category for November.

Although still expected to easily qualify for the November ballot, Mr. Rossi’s path to the GOP nomination has not been smooth.

Former NFL player and alfalfa farmer Clint Didier, a “tea party”-backed fiscal conservative who received a surprise endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, refused to quit the primary and is favored by 11 percent of likely voters in Tuesday’s vote, according to the SurveyUSA poll.

Didier spokeswoman Kathryn Serkes argues that the poll understates her candidate’s support, in a year in which party establishment-backed candidates have been upset in a number of GOP primary contests.

“Sarah Palin stands firm. She’s making get-out-the-vote calls,” Ms. Serkes said. “If Clint Didier is not the other candidate in the primary, Patty Murray is going to win because nobody else can deliver the grass-roots, independent and conservative vote.”

Ms. Serkes said an upset is entirely possible because early returns show residents are holding onto the ballots until the last possible moment. With the exception of one county, the statewide primary is being conducted by mail-in vote.

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